Students campaign for wilderness protection

Protected Alaskan land is in danger of being developed for oil production.

Ashley Bray

December marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge  in Alaska, and several University of Minnesota students are recognizing the date by fighting for the protection of its inhabitants.
The group, which got involved with the Alaska Wilderness League  through a service learning class, has begun calling lawmakers and will host a discussion Thursday afternoon in the St. Paul Student Center to raise awareness for the cause.
The studentsâÄô short-term goal is to convince President Barack Obama to declare the refuge a national monument, said Dana Hallstrom, an applied economics senior.
Designating the area as a national monument would give it an additional level of protection to deter development for oil production, said Lois Norrgard of  the Alaska Wilderness League. The area is already designated as a wildlife refuge area, which is one step below national monument status.
The studentsâÄô ultimate goal in the working with the Alaska Wilderness League is to have the area become a designated wilderness area âÄî the highest level of protection offered in the U.S.
Part of the refuge composed of 1.9 million acres of unparalleled wilderness along the Arctic Coast has been in danger of being developed for oil for many years, Norrgard said. ItâÄôs the same area that was the subject of Sarah PalinâÄôs popular âÄúDrill Here Drill NowâÄù campaign during the 2008 presidential election, she said.
Should the land be developed for oil, it would displace many native species and, in turn, disrupt the native Alaskans living just outside of the refuge, advocates say.
âÄúThere is a lot of wildlife [on the refuge] that canâÄôt be found anywhere else in the United States, like polar bear, musk ox, porcupine caribou, arctic fox,âÄù Norrgard said.
Of all the wildlife that make their homes on the refuge, porcupine caribou may suffer the harshest consequences.
There are approximately 120,000 to 130,000 caribou that breed on the refuge âÄî thatâÄôs 20,000 to 30,000 babies per year born on the land, Norrgard said.
Displacing the caribou would have serious consequences for the native GwichâÄôin  people whose entire culture centers on the herd, Hallstrom said.
âÄúThey are pretty much sustained off that caribou,âÄù she said. The GwichâÄôin people consider the caribou so sacred that they will not step foot on their calving grounds because they do not want to interfere with the mothers and babies.
âÄúThey call it the place where life begins,âÄù Norrgard said.
There are also many species of birds, many that are common here in Minnesota, which would be displaced should the land be developed for oil, Erin Manlick, a first year fisheries and wildlife major, said.
Birds such as the American kestrel, the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and dozens of others from the Midwest all migrate to the refuge.
The students said that since a new wave of elected officials has moved into office, the work they are doing is more important than ever.
âÄúWe were actually feeling pretty good [about] being able to work in a positive way for the refuge with the present administration,âÄù Norrgard said. âÄúBut with these last elections it looks like there are a lot of new members of Congress that want to see this place opened up.âÄù
A Senate bill, if passed, would consider portions of the refuge as federally protected wilderness. The bill âÄî co-sponsored by 29 Democrats in the Senate, including Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. âÄî has not moved past the Committee on Environment and Public Works, to which it was referred in January 2009.
The students said they believed some would like to go forth with developing the land for oil to become less dependent on foreign oil, but said they think the negative consequences would greatly outweigh any positives.
âÄúThereâÄôs nothing to say that thereâÄôs even close to enough oil in that area to make us independent of foreign oil,âÄù fisheries and wildlife junior Anna Koerner said.
All of the students and Norrgard said they hope that Obama will take action sooner rather than later.
âÄúThe hope is that he will do something this year, because of the anniversary,âÄù Norrgard said, âÄúâĦ and  for sure by the end of
his term.âÄù