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Adirondack concerns for protecting America’s remaining wilderness increase

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has released the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) in preparation of oil and gas lease sales in our country’s largest wildlife refuge — namely, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The EIS, released in December, is the latest action by the DOI to advance the issue and the public is encouraged to submit comments before the comment period ends on Feb 11. Human rights and environmental activists are also calling on their representatives and members in Congress to support the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, a bill introduced last year that would repeal the provision in the 2017 tax bill that calls for drilling in The Arctic Refuge.

While it is estimated that oil from the Arctic Refuge will only last six months, the impacts on the ecosystem and the Gwich’in, the first people of the area who rely on it for subsistence, will be long-lasting. People across the region have weighed in heavily in opposition to oil development there.

“Removing protections from our country’s largest wildlife refuge sets a dangerous precedent,” said Wendy Hall, a wildlife educator and strong advocate for the Arctic Refuge in New York’s 21st Congressional District. 

Hall and her husband are the founders of the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit organization dedicated the rehabilitation, rescue and release of sick and injured wildlife located in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. 

To bring awareness to the threats facing the Arctic Refuge, Hall has met with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and has shared her concerns on Capitol Hill. More recently, AWR collaborated with the Sierra Club for a community presentation called “Protecting the Arctic Refuge and the Interconnections of Global Ecosystems.” The presentation drew approximately 30 visitors to AWR, despite winter travel conditions, and generated more than 700 views on live event coverage. 

“It’s important to bring awareness to the threats facing the Arctic Refuge,” said Hall. “What happens there has a ripple effect on global ecosystems.” 

During the presentation, attendees were given an overview of the issue and immediate threats of seismic testing which could begin as early as the summer. They learned about at-risk species such as bears, wolves, muskoxen, Arctic foxes and migratory birds that call the refuge home. They were also given the chance to meet some of AWR’s permanent residents (there as ambassadors for their species) including Pippin, a red fox who was rescued from a fur farm, Kiska and Zeebie, two gray wolves that were born in captivity in the West and adopted by AWR, and Cara, a snowy owl hit by a bus who can no longer fly. 

For Hall’s presentation, she held Cara and explained that snowy owls are included in the list of over 200 species of migratory birds that call the Arctic Refuge home.

“Connecting the species to the issue helps in understanding the environmental threats facing wildlife,” said Hall. “Irruptions, or sharp increases of snowy owls in the continental U.S., have become more frequent. Cara was found in the park after being hit by a bus during feeding times. She is lucky to have survived.”

During migration, collisions with vehicles, secondary rodenticide poisoning or illegal shooting threaten migratory birds. It is not uncommon for large irruptions of snowy owls to end their journey emaciated, stressed or injured.

“Alterations or changes like climate affect the whole ecosystem and can negatively impact wildlife. What sense does it make to lessen protections and deplete vital habit?” asked Hall. “These animals need a refuge.” 

The Arctic Refuge represents the remaining 5 percent of Alaska’s coastline protected from resource extraction, as 95 percent has been opened to extractive industries. On a national scale, 90 percent of public lands in the U.S. have been open to oil and gas leasing. The point? We must protect our country’s remaining wilderness and intact ecosystems. 

“Drilling anywhere depletes vital habitat and threatens biodiversity, contributes to climate change and puts vulnerable communities at risk,” said Hall. 

As Congress continues to remove protections for areas like the Arctic Refuge, Hall feels that it should be of major concern for the region. 

According to data from the Fourth National Climate Assessment, by 2035 the Northeast is projected to be more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) warmer on average than during the preindustrial era. This would be the largest increase in the contiguous United States and would occur as much as two decades before global average temperatures reach a similar milestone. 

“We need to take this data seriously. We need to implement responsible climate policies and phase out fossil fuel dependence,” said Hall. “Drilling in our country’s largest wildlife refuge is a tremendous step backward.” 

Rebekah Ashley, who grew up in the Adirondacks, is a freelance writer and environmental advocate based in Lake Placid. She covers environment and policy with a focus on climate change.