Good News for the Arctic, But...

When you're working toward a big goal, progress isn't always smooth. If you're lucky, though, the breakthroughs outpace the setbacks, even if it's sometimes a close call. For Alaskan wilderness protection, this week produced a breakthrough that's been a long time coming. President Obama will recommend that Congress designate over 12 million acres of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, including 1.52 million acres of the coastal plain.

Unfortunately, there's a greater chance that the Yankees will switch to field hockey than that the current Congress will act on the wilderness designation. Even so, the Interior Department has said that it will now manage these lands as if they were officially wilderness, which means no oil and gas leasing.

Of course, "unofficially," these lands have been wilderness for millions of years and -- as long as they remain off limits to oil and gas drilling -- they will stay that way. This is one of the situations where, really, all we have to do is not mess things up.

Last year, I got to experience the wildness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge firsthand. Someone said that John Muir wrote in one of his journals that you shouldn't visit Alaska for the first time as a young man because you'll never be satisfied with any other place as long as you live. Maybe that's why Muir kept going back there in his later years. As for me, my conception of wilderness had to be completely recalibrated after spending a week in the Refuge. It truly is an incredible place, but the single most amazing thing about it may be that after so many decades we still have not established permanent protection for this unique and irreplaceable national treasure.

Ultimately, that protection will happen, though -- and not just because the American people know the value of real wilderness. It will happen because we can see an end to the threat of unrestrained fossil fuel development. Between the rise of clean renewable energy and the recognition that we must leave at least four fifths of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we want to limit climate disruption, the window is closing on the threat of a drilling disaster in the Arctic.

It hasn't shut yet, though. In fact, hard on the heels of releasing the very good news about the Arctic Refuge, the Obama administration also delivered a setback for the Arctic. It announced that it plans to open some new areas off the Alaskan and Atlantic coasts to oil and gas leasing (while also putting some areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off-limits). That's bad news for the Atlantic Coast and decidedly mixed news for the Arctic and its wildlife. It's also directly at odds with the president's climate goals.

(By the way, this is not the first time the Obama administration has proposed new drilling off the Atlantic coast. A previous proposal was quickly withdrawn after the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico caused what Obama himself called "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced." Did it really take only five years to decide we're ready to risk another one?)

Clearly, even though President Obama wants climate action to be one of his presidency's chief legacies, he's not yet ready to base his policies on the reality of what actually needs to be done. In this case, he has taken two big steps forward with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (which has enraged his opponents) and then followed up with an ill-advised step backward on offshore drilling (which, ironically, has enraged those same opponents). Yes, that counts as progress, and the good news is still very good. Still, it's frustrating to see this president settle for good when great is what we need so badly.

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