Every spring one of North America's last great overland migrations takes place. The Porcupine River caribou herd is the last large herd of migratory animals to travel their traditional routes, undisturbed, in North or South America.
The 123,000-member herd migrates to the Coastal Plain of our Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also known as the "biological heart" of the refuge. For more than 25,000 years, indigenous communities have inhabited this region and rely heavily on caribou to provide 85 percent of their food and clothing. Every year our Coastal Plain breeds life, and every year it is at risk from oil development. This year could be different.
The Coastal Plain supports 135 species of migratory birds that fly to six continents, as well as providing critical habitat for the iconic polar bear. In Oregon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may seem far away. But the Sandhill Crane and the Brant Goose migrate to and from the Coastal Plain and Oregon each year. As ice floes offshore disappear, America's polar bears are increasingly denning in the Coastal Plain. The region is a place of immense diversity and teems with life.
There is a way to end the year-after-year threats to the Coastal Plain with a wilderness designation from Congress. This has always been and will continue to be a bipartisan effort. Republican President Eisenhower created the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960, just a year after Alaska's statehood. Two decades later, President Carter enlarged the area and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but Congress did not designate the Coastal Plain as wilderness. And this year, bipartisan wilderness legislation, HR 139, has been introduced in the House by Reps. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Ed Markey, D-Mass.
Today, this decision should not be controversial. Drilling in the refuge could provide a six-month supply of oil to the U.S. Our country consumes 22 percent of the world's oil supply every year, but we hold just 2 percent of the world's known oil reserves. Extracting the oil in our refuge won't solve our oil problems, but using less oil might.
Additionally, President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell are staunchly opposed to drilling in the refuge. The president said it's "off the table" to development. Interior Secretary Jewell has reconfirmed her support for the refuge over and over again.
What's more, Oregon's congressional delegation is increasingly important, and historically opposed to risking damage to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. Sen. Ron Wyden has consistently voted to disallow drilling in the refuge and to protect sensitive habitat areas as wilderness. Wyden chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and is widely expected to take over the Senate Finance Committee. His 32 years of service in Congress, commitment to bipartisanship and ability to work through stalemates mean his sponsorship of a wilderness designation could go the distance.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, who has served for 26 years, now has the top Democratic spot on the House Natural Resources Committee, thereby increasing his power of persuasion in that chamber.
We are Oregon. Nationally, we're looked to as a leader on natural resource issues. It is only fitting that our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., hold those positions officially.
Today the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act (HR 139), which would protect the Coastal Plain as wilderness, has 97 co-sponsors, including Oregon Reps. DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici. We should encourage Reps. Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden to join them. Additionally, in the Senate, S 17, the Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013, would open the sensitive Coastal Plain to drilling, which is slated for consideration in Wyden's Energy and Natural Resources Committee. We should thank Wyden for his leadership and ask that he vote against S 17 and instead support the strongest possible protections for the Coastal Plain.
The Porcupine caribou herd has held a rhythm and balance for tens of thousands of years. We've fashioned much of the natural world to suit our purposes. We owe it to the natural world to preserve this extraordinary wild place.
There are other places to drill. There are better ways to find energy in our world. There are irreplaceable things we cannot return to once they are gone. The Coastal Plain of our Arctic National Wildlife Refuge needs a wilderness designation. Oregon can help it get one now.
Dennis Specht is a volunteer with the Alaska Wilderness League. Dennis and the League will present screenings of the documentary film "Being Caribou" at the library in downtown Jacksonville at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5; the Medford Library at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6; and the Ashland Library at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7. For more information email ArcticCaribouMigration@gmail.com.