President Barack Obama said Sunday that he planned to ask Congress to declare much of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, including its 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, an area on Alaska's North Slope suspected to contain vast reserves of oil and gas.
The designation would forever prevent exploration and production on the coastal plain, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the idea would be dead on arrival in the Republican-led Congress.
Without an act of Congress, the Sunday announcement will have little practical effect in the way that the coastal plain is managed -- there would still be no drilling, while subsistence hunting and fishing could occur as before. But the decision appears to send a signal about Obama's views toward development in the Arctic, and other upcoming decisions may have more immediate effects on development in the far north.
Murkowski and the rest of the state's congressional delegation, along with Gov. Bill Walker, reacted strongly to the symbolism in the administration's announcement. In a joint statement, they said the move -- and two other anticipated announcements involving offshore drilling in the Arctic and development in National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska -- amounted to "declaring war on Alaska's future."
Murkowski, in a Sunday telephone interview from her home in Washington, D.C., called the administration's moves a "trifecta" with a cumulative impact that could harm Alaska's economy. Even though the wilderness bid will likely fail in Congress, it will reinvigorate an environmental cause that had slipped from the national consciousness, she said.