Each year, dozens of bird species from Alaska migrate to every state in the country and out to six continents. On Sunday, President Obama called on Congress to protect their home, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), as protected wilderness. If approved, 12 million acres of the ANWR’s 19 million would be designated—the largest wilderness designation since Congress passed the Wilderness Act half a century ago.
The proposal is for more than just the birds; the area in question is a birthing ground for wildlife including caribou, grizzly bears, musk oxen, and foxes. “We often say it is the heart of the refuge,” says Jim Adams, Policy Director for Audubon Alaska.
Watch the full announcement:
A 1.5 million acre swath of the proposed area also houses oil reserves. The debate over whether to drill in the Refuge has raged since the Reagan Era, when the Department of the Interior—“Mission: Protecting America’s Great Outdoors and Powering Our Future”—recommended Congress allow drilling to boost the nation’s oil production.
Domestic oil production has boomed in recent years—though the ANWR remains untapped. The United States is now the world’s top producer of natural gas and oil, according to a White House Statement.
While the area is protected from drilling by its status as a Wildlife Refuge, designating it wilderness would strengthen the ban. It also means the proposal is unlikely to pass through the Republican-dominated Congress.
“There are some places that are too special to drill,” Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a press conference. Markey has participated in the decades-long disagreement over whether to take the ANWR energy resources—on Monday, he said the nation’s current energy security means the country has all the more responsibility to protect the Refuge.
The announcement has already been met with what the New York Times describes as “fierce opposition. Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) called the protection represent an “unprecedented assault on Alaska.”
“What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive,” she said in a statement.
The Obama Administration is expected to release a plan for oil exploration in the Arctic seas later this week.