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Make This Natural Treasure a National Monument

By Jimmy Carter

This Op-Ed appeared in The New York Times. DO NOT REPRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION. Copyright© The Carter Center

Rosalynn and I always look for opportunities to visit parks and wildlife areas in our travels. But nothing matches the spectacle of wildlife we found on the coastal plain of America's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. To the north lay the Arctic Ocean; to the south, rolling foothills rose toward the glaciated peaks of the Brooks Range. At our feet was a mat of low tundra plant life, bursting with new growth, perched atop the permafrost.

As we watched, 80,000 caribou surged across the vast expanse around us. Called by instinct older than history, this Porcupine (River) caribou herd was in the midst of its annual migration. To witness this vast sea of caribou in an uncorrupted wilderness home, and the wolves, ptarmigan, grizzlies, polar bears, musk oxen and millions of migratory birds, was a profoundly humbling experience. We were reminded of our human dependence on the natural world.

Sadly, we were also forced to imagine what we might see if the caribou were replaced by smoke-belching oil rigs, highways and a pipeline that would destroy forever the plain's delicate and precious ecosystem.

Unfortunately, that scenario is far from imaginary. The reason the Alaskan coastal plain is home today to a pageant of wildlife is that there have been both Republican and Democratic presidents who cared about the environment. In 1960 President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated the coastal plain as part of a national wildlife refuge. Twenty years later, I signed legislation expanding the protected area to 18 million acres.

I listened to scientists who emphasized that the coastal plain is the ecological heart and soul of this, our greatest wildlife sanctuary. And I decided we should do everything possible to protect it and the stunning wildlife that it shelters. At my urging, the House twice voted to dedicate the coastal plain as statutorily protected wilderness.

Then, even more than today, much attention was focused on high energy prices; oil companies -- playing on Americans' fears -- sought the right to drill in protected areas. While the House held firm, the Senate forced a compromise, without ever putting the fate of the refuge to a vote. Thus, the law I signed 20 years ago did not permanently protect this Arctic wilderness. It did, however, block any oil company drilling until Congress votes otherwise. That is where the issue stands today.

The fate of the Arctic coastal plain was a subject of intense debate in the presidential campaign. But as the 106th Congress adjourned, a bill to safeguard the coastal plain by designating it as wilderness was blocked by parochial opposition from Alaska's congressional delegation. And there is little doubt that President-elect George W. Bush and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney will press Congress to open this area to oil companies. As oil industry veterans, they have unquestioning faith that drilling would have little impact.

The simple fact is, drilling is inherently incompatible with wilderness. The roar alone -- of road-building, trucks, drilling and generators -- would pollute the wild music of the Arctic and be as out of place there as it would be in the heart of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.
Some 95 percent of Alaska's oil-rich North Slope lands are already available for exploration or development. Our nation must choose what to do with the last 5 percent. Oil drilling or wilderness. We cannot have it both ways.

I am for the wilderness. That is why I urge President Clinton, who has been a champion for America's environment, to proclaim the coastal plain as a new Arctic Wildlife National Monument before he leaves office. It is vital to do so now, as the Arctic is threatened as never before.

National monuments are a unique form of recognition that presidents have used for nearly a century to single out the finest examples of America's natural heritage. Of course, Congress can undo a presidentially proclaimed monument. But that has never been done.
Teddy Roosevelt pioneered bold presidential action for conservation. He used the Antiquities Act to protect the Grand Canyon, urging Americans: "Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is keep it for your children, your children's children and for all who come after you."

Now it is President Clinton's turn. With the Arctic coastal plain facing very real peril, it is time for presidential foresight once again.

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