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Obama may try to bypass Congress on Alaska wilderness plan

Obama may try to bypass Congress on Alaska wilderness plan

President Obama has gone around Congress before, and it looks like he may try again, this time in Alaska.

On Sunday, Obama announced he and officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior want to add a whopping 12.8 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness territory, which would prevent those areas from ever being used for mining and drilling, as well as becoming off-limits to roads, vehicles and permanent structures.

Wilderness designations require approval from Congress. That figures to be an uphill climb; all the members of the Alaskan congressional delegation are dead-set against the plan, and the House and the Senate are controlled by Republicans.

But that’s not the end of the story.

The president, in a YouTube video announcing the proposal, mentioned Interior is developing a “comprehensive plan” for wilderness designation, and those details figure to allow the administration to immediately start managing a crucial, oil-rich area of ANWR and keeping anyone from extracting energy there, regardless of what Congress decides.

“What happens is the land management agency, in this case the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will step in and manage it as wilderness to protect its wilderness characteristics until Congress acts,” Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told Watchdog.org on Sunday. “So now it’s de facto wilderness, regardless (of) what Congress does … It’s basically an executive order.”

Politico quoted an unnamed Interior official Sunday who said even if Congress fails to confirm the wilderness designation, the department can still manage the region in “a way that protects the Wilderness character of the area.”

One of the areas affected is 1.5 million acres of Alaska’s Coastal Plains, which is estimated to hold 10.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

The announcement Sunday and the potential administration end-around had Alaska’s Capitol Hill contingent — made up entirely of Republicans — livid.

Rep. Don Young said the wilderness proposal was “callously planned and politically motivated,” and he likened it to “spitting in our faces and telling us it’s raining outside.”

The crashing price of oil has hit Alaska hard and Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent elected in November, said the call for expanding wilderness territory in ANWR could cut off plans to accelerate the pace of oil production in the state.

“This action by the federal government is a major setback toward reaching that goal,”Walker said Sunday.

Dillon told Watchdog.org the Obama administration gave Murkowski’s office a heads-up Friday of an announcement Sunday that would affect Alaska and to watch for more announcements regarding energy and environment in the state.

Last month, Obama indefinitely extended a drilling ban in Bristol Bay, off Alaska’s southern coast.

Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported the Interior Department will place parts of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling and is considering additional restrictions on the Natural Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

“In what I believe is a stunning attack on our sovereignty, the Obama administration is planning to announce a number of moves that will lock down and lock away much of Alaska’s energy development potential,” Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said in a statement. “It’s clear this administration does not care about Alaskans, and considers us as little more than a territory. This is an administration that will negotiate with the likes of Iran, but not sit down with Alaskans.”

But environmental groups in Alaska and across the Lower 48 heaped praise on Obama’s announcement.

The Alaska Wilderness League encouraged its members to send the president a thank-you note and Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council,called ANWR “a national treasure worthy of the highest protection available.”

Polar bears, caribou, grizzlies and musk oxen roam the proposed wilderness area.

In comments Sunday on various Alaska media sites, a number of supporters of the administration’s action said the president is within his rights, as ANWR is on federal land.

But critics claim the move violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act— called ANILCA — which was signed 35 years ago during the Carter administration.

“Alaska has more wilderness than the rest of the nation combined,” Dillon said. “In 1980, when we passed ANILCA, signed by Jimmy Carter, it made 100 million acres of Alaska public land — refuges, parks, wilderness area. In exchange for that, Carter, in the law, said, Alaska has given enough. Alaska will not be asked to give any more to the federal refuge system, to the public land system, that they’ve given more than any other state combined. And this is a broken promise.”

Interior, in a news release Sunday, said it’s in the process of putting together a conservation plan for the proposed wilderness area.

“Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement.

Here’s the YouTube video, released by the White House as Obama was on Air Force One en route to India for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi:


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