Summit County residents push for Arctic wildlife protections |

Summit County residents push for Arctic wildlife protections

Julie SutorSummit County Correspondent Post IndependentGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
US Fish & Wildlife ServiceCaribou on the Arctic Refuge, with the Brooks Range mountains in the background.

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado – Summit County residents Cassidy Brush and Rick Warren have a love for wildlife – and not just for the critters that surround us in the Colorado High Country. The two local Sierra Club volunteers’ passion extends to the northernmost reaches of the continent, where caribou migrate across vast Arctic plains and polar bears seek refuge as sea ice melts away.Warren and Brush are working to drum up support for stronger federal protections in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a biologically rich expanse of mountains, rivers, coastal plains and tundra in the northeast corner of Alaska.2010 is the Arctic Refuge’s 50th anniversary. The federal government established the refuge in 1960 and expanded it to its current size of 19.2 million acres in 1980. The refuge is home to 45 species of land and marine mammals, including the polar bear, grizzly bear, wolf, wolverine, Dall sheep, moose and muskox. Thirty-six species of fish swim through Arctic Refuge waters, and 180 species of birds spend part of the year there. The refuge is perhaps most famous for the 129,000-member Porcupine River caribou herd, whose calving ground is on the area’s coastal plain.Last month, Warren and Brush traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby federal lawmakers in support of legislation that would designate the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge as a wilderness area.”I’m fortunate enough to wake up every morning and look out my window at the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area,” Warren said. “If people don’t go out and work to protect areas as wilderness, you lose them.”The area’s current designation as a federal wildlife refuge does not preclude resource extraction, like gas and oil drilling. Wilderness designation, on the other hand, would prevent any manner of industrial activity from taking place on the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, considered by researchers to be the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge as well as one of the few coastal areas untouched by the fossil fuel industry.”The area really represents the last sliver of undeveloped wild coast on Alaska’s north slope,” said Mike Bybee of the Sierra Club. “Oil and gas development on-shore and off-shore continues to grow and sprawl.” In 1980, Congress mandated studies of the petroleum potential and biological resources of the area. During the George W. Bush administration, there was significant pressure to open the Arctic Refuge for drilling. According to some estimates, the coastal plain contains enough oil to power the entire U.S. for six months.”We felt pretty happy that we were able to hold the line and keep rigs out of the refuge,” Bybee said.Since President Barack Obama entered the White House, the pressure has eased, and conservationists are using the opportunity to try for lasting protections that would guard against future efforts to open up the coastal plain for its fossil fuel resources. Lawmakers in the Senate and the House of Representatives have introduced legislation that would do just that.During their trip to Washington, Warren and Brush, along with Sierra Club volunteers from four other states, partnered with Alaska natives to meet with members of their congressional delegations, urging them to co-sponsor the bills.”We spent a day-and-a-half learning more about the area and speaking with the Native Americans. As a group, we headed to the Capitol and saw over 45 legislators or their staff members,” Warren said.So far, Sen. Mark Udall, Rep. Jared Polis and Rep. Diana DeGette have all signed on.”It’s important to generate that cosponsor list to show as much support as possible,” Bybee said.

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