America reconsiders its attack on the Arctic with a bill that would permanently protect parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Making it a law would be quite transcendental
The U.S. Congress approved a 60-day period during which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar could have rescinded harmful 11th-hour changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) made by the outgoing President Bush — changes that have significantly reduced protections afforded to the drowning polar bears of the vanishing Arctic.
Almost 100,000 Americans signed the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petition urging Secretary Salazar to undo what has been called “Bush’s polar bear extinction plan,” which limits the use of the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that are directly linked to the rapid melting of sea ice.
Polar bears need sea ice to hunt for food. But with the ice melting away, many have been spotted miles from the shore in search of something to eat. Though polar bears are good swimmers, many go too far out and drown. A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey report noted scientific evidence of a polar bear extinction in as little as 45 years due to sea ice loss.
Sadly, Mr. Salazar decided to keep the destructive Bush rules. It is a huge, unfortunate blemish on the Obama administration’s environmental record.
According to a May 8 CBD press release, “Salazar ignored strong criticism of the rule and requests to revoke it from more than 1,300 scientists, more than 50 prominent legal experts, dozens of lawmakers, more than 130 conservation organizations and hundreds of thousands of members of the public.”
“We’re very disappointed that Secretary Salazar decided not to cut through the red tape and restore protections for polar bears immediately,” said former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Jamie Rappaport Clark, as reported in the New York Times. “[The rule] made no sense under the Bush administration and it certainly makes no sense for the Obama administration.” Ms. Clark now works for the non-profit conservation organization Defenders for Wildlife.
“His decision,” said CBD executive director Kierán Suckling, “cynically denies the polar bear the full protections it needs to survive.”
The New York Times quoted Mr. Salazar as saying, “When the ESA was passed, it was not contemplated it would be the tool to address the issue of climate change…It seems to me that using the Endangered Species Act as a way to get to that global warming framework is not the right way to go.”
Mr. Salazar is wrong in thinking that the ESA is not the appropriate tool to use to save the polar bear. All current tools should be used to save this American icon. There is no reason to avoid the ESA in this regard other than leaving a window of opportunity open to companies that want to drill in and around the Chukchi and Beaufort seas — which happens to be critical and fragile habitat for the polar bear. Considering the glacial pace of American lawmaking, waiting for Capitol Hill to figure out a new tool to protect the polar bear might be too late.
But there is a glimmer of hope for the Arctic shore: the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act (H.R. 39).
If passed, it would grant wilderness designation to portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a natural treasure where polar bears go to den that is also home to reindeer, musk ox, wolves, wolverines, grizzly bears, Arctic foxes and millions of migratory birds such as snow geese and peregrine falcons.
The bill would grant permanent protection to ANWR’s coastal plain as a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, which currently protects over 100 million acres of wild American land.
ANWR has been under attack by oil companies and certain lawmakers who have tried to pry open this pristine landscape to oil and gas exploration.
H.R. 39 does not address the reduction the carbon emissions that cause sea ice loss, but at least it would give the polar bears a fighting chance.
American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau once said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” When it comes to the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge — and the struggling polar bears who live there — hopefully America’s lawmakers will agree.