Why Obama’s Alaskan Wilderness Plan Matters for the Endangered Species Act


Why Obama’s Alaskan Wilderness Plan Matters for the Endangered Species Act

Broken promises fuel resentment surrounding conservation

The announcement by President Obama that he wants to designate the entire Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska as a wilderness area has a great deal of importance to states, business and landowners that are trying to cut deals with the Interior Department to lessen the impacts of the Endangered Species Act.

The ANWR announcement is a clear indication that the administration cannot be trusted to honor its, or previous administrations’, pledges to work with the regulated community on the Endangered Species Act, which includes efforts to prevent species from being listed and lessen the regulatory impacts of species already listed. This unfortunate reality has particular importance for those that are desperately trying to prevent the listing of the greater sage grouse across the bird’s 11-state, 165 million-acre range.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), one provision of which created the 19.3 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Many Alaskans, including the state’s Congressional delegation, were very unhappy about yet more land being put off limits to commercial activities in ANWR and elsewhere.

As part of the grand bargain of ANILCA, 8.9 million acres of ANWR were designated as wilderness, which precludes any development, while 1.5 million acres, or 8% of the refuge, was set aside for potential oil exploration. Of this set-aside, known as the 1002 Area, only a tiny portion would be subject to drilling and exploration activities. It is estimated there are about 18 billion barrels of recoverable oil beneath the 1002 Area, as well as adjacent private lands from which oil can be recovered only if the 1002 Area is opened.

Now the Obama administration wants to designate the remaining 10.4 million acres of ANWR, including the 1002 Area, as wilderness. In so doing, the administration is reneging on the agreement made in 1980 that the 1.5 million acres of the 1002 Area would be retained for oil exploration.

This reneging is very relevant to what is currently going on with the Endangered Species Act. Businesses, landowners and states are cutting all sorts of deals with the Interior Department with the understanding that putting land off limits and sacrificing economic development opportunities now will hopefully result in species not being listed and more favorable regulatory treatment for already-listed species. Unfortunately, the Interior Department cannot be trusted.

For proof of this, look no farther than the Department’s decision in November to list the Gunnison sage grouse. The Department strongly indicated in the 1990s that efforts by Colorado and state’s Gunnison County would prevent listing, especially the enrollment of 64,000 acres of ranch land in conservation easements. In total, Colorado, Utah and Gunnison County spent almost $60 million, put most of the grouse’s habitat in formal conservation agreements, and engaged in cutting-edge research-all of which resulted in a healthy, stable grouse population. And yet this was not good enough for the Interior Department. So it reneged and listed the Gunnison sage grouse.

According to Greg Walcher, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources from 1999-2004, “Listing of the Gunnison sage grouse represents one of the worst broken promises in the history of conservation. Massive investment and local participation was made with the clear understanding that the Gunnison sage grouse would not be added to the federal endangered species list.”

There are several takeaway lessons from the ANWR announcement for those involved with the Endangered Species Act:

First, the federal government cannot be trusted to keep promises, stick to its commitments not to list species, or lessen the regulatory burden for species already listed. This is especially the case if the species is high profile, such as the sage grouse, subject to lobbying by pressure groups, and if the commitment must stick for a long period of time.

Second, initiatives that lessen the regulatory impacts of the Endangered Species Act-such as Safe Harbor, Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances and No Surprises-are much less durable and provide much less regulatory certainty than portrayed by the Interior Department because they are done administratively, not statutorily.

And third, given that the Interior Department cannot be trusted and that administrative remedies are insecure, the only durable solution for landowners, business and states dealing with the Endangered Species Act is legislation; either to amend the Act or formulate an entirely new approach.

Brian Seasholes is director of the endangered species project at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared at Watchdog.org.