Here’s an article in E- The Environmental Magazine that I just finished about a place I’m in absolute awe of—Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. Few Americans are aware of this treasure—check it out at the link below…..
Critical Alaska Habitat Spared from Oil and Natural Gas Development in National Geographic News
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
By Molly Loomis
Published July 28, 2010
Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has become synonymous with the conflict between energy development and conservation. But just 100 miles (161 kilometers) to the west, a similar battle has long been under way in the National Petroleum Reserve. Now the caribou and geese can claim a victory there.
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is set to conduct a lease sale on August 11 of about 1.8 million acres (728,434 hectares) of oil and natural gas parcels in the northeast section of the reserve—but the plan protects from development 170,000 acres (68,797 hectares) of critical habitat in buffer zones south of the biologically rich Teshekpuk Lake.
“Santa Claus is real!” said Steve Zack, scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, after hearing the decision to protect the tracts within a federal reserve that had been seen as destined for energy development for decades.
President Warren Harding established the 23-million acre (9.3 million hectare) National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) in 1923, intending that it would serve as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy. But environmentalists have long sought protection for the rich diversity of life in and around Teshekpuk Lake, and the job of balancing both energy and environmental imperatives was put into BLM’s hands by Congress in 1976. The agency designated the lake a “special area” and it was left undeveloped even after the BLM began a series of lease sales in 1999.
But in 2006, during President George W. Bush’s administration, the BLM initiated an oil and gas lease sale that would take in much of the protected Teshekpuk area, except for the lakebed itself and associated islands. The move alarmed environmentalists and scientists like Zack, who has spent six years studying the migratory birds that stop there.
A Unique Habitat
Located east of Barrow, the northeast reserve provides prime breeding and nesting ground for birds from around the world, including waterfowl prized by hunters throughout North America. The area around the lake is rich in key habitat such as thaw lakes and wet tundra, and Zack says it constitutes a nursery of international importance.
“The birds have flown there to settle and nest. Therefore they’re dispersed and relatively quiet,” says Zack. “When you walk through that habitat you’re regularly flushing birds up off their nests.”
In addition, each year tens of thousands of Black Brant, Canada Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese descend upon the region to molt, replacing old, tired feathers with new ones. During this time, the birds are unable to fly. A BLM habitat study in 1985 said that no other area of the Arctic Coastal Plain has such a combination of nutrient-rich, meadow-like habitat with a deep open lake to provide security from predators when the geese are at their most vulnerable.
But Teshekpuk Lake isn’t just for the birds. It is also the calving grounds of a 70,000-strong caribou herd, which Inupiat from four different villages hunt. Hunting isn’t simply a pastime for the Inupiat—it’s an integral part of their culture and critical to their survival. The Teshekpuk Lake herd constitutes up to 95 percent of the caribou taken each year by native hunters in the region.
“The BLM has a mandate to balance resource management,” says Zack. “Yes, it is the National Petroleum Reserve, but that doesn’t mean it has to be 100 percent petroleum.”
Four Years of Uncertainty
A lawsuit filed by conservation groups—arguing the environmental impact analysis had been incomplete—halted the proposed 2006 lease sale. And indeed, after further court-ordered study, the BLM agreed to greater protection, filing an amended environmental impact statement in the final year of the Bush administration that deferred leasing for ten years in the 430,000 acres (174,000 hectares) north and east of Teshekpuk Lake. But the fate of the area south of the lake was unsure until the July 9 announcement that the first NPR-A lease sale of President Barack Obama’s administration would keep it off limits—at least for now.
An oil industry spokeswoman says that energy companies are disappointed that so much of the petroleum reserve has been cordoned off. “Obviously we continue to believe that oil and gas can be developed responsibly in sensitive areas,” says Kara Moriarity, deputy director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. “We do it all the time, 365 days a year, in Alaska. We don’t view NPR-A any different. NPR-A is a natural petroleum reserve. Companies should have the opportunity to lease and then develop exploration plans and to go out and produce oil in a petroleum reserve.”
But Eric Myers, policy director for Audubon Alaska, says he believes the decision shows both energy and environmental concerns were weighed. His group and seven other conservation groups had submitted a letter of concern to the Obama administration’s BLM after an early draft map made the protected area unclear; they said that the entirety of the caribou calving grounds should be kept free of development. “I greatly appreciated the fact that they had taken these concerns into account,” says Myers. He saw “a serious reflection of the issues that had been raised and a willingness to balance the decision.”
There may have been other considerations at work. The prospect of the costs of developing infrastructure in the area when the price of natural gas is relatively low might have muted the industry push to open up the lands, says Zack. He also speculates that the BLM wants to maintain a good relationship with the North Slope Borough, which has opposed energy development around the lake.
North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta, whose family has spent generations at Teshekpuk Lake, says the BLM’s decision marks “a new day.”
“I’d like to think that finally they’ve gotten out of the old way they did business—that was resource development,” says Itta. “Now they’re listening to the people and the scientists.”
There will be more opportunity for comment from all sides, as the BLM is due to begin a revision of its entire plan for management of NPR-A. And the area south of Teshekpuk Lake may once again be considered for development in the next lease sale, which could come as early as 2012.
American Robins Take Up Residence in the Arctic on National Geographic News Watch
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
By Molly Loomis
Long regarded as a haven for migratory birds from around the world, the Arctic is increasingly playing host to a growing list of southern species never before seen in the North’s colder climes.
On a recent expedition to the National Petroleum Reserve’s Utukok River, a team of scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) encountered dozens of American robins amongst the Arctic’s famous summer avian aggregation.
An American robin, not previously considered an Arctic bird, sings from a willow bough along the Arctic’s Utukok River.
Photo courtesy of Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society
“It felt really raw to actually be seeing evidence of species moving northward probably because of climate change,” says Jodi Hilty, director of WCS North America. “I’ve seen studies, but to actually see it took me aback.”
While rafting down the Utukok, Hilty and colleague Steve Zack were stunned to hear the familiar sing-song call associated with parks and backyards throughout America. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed that it was indeed a male robin desperately looking for a mate.
His song wasn’t in vain. Another five miles down river, the team floated by a thicket of alders teeming with the ruddy red birds.
“It was a density like what you would find in Mom and Pop America–with white picket fences and green lawns,” says Zack. “We were in the thick of it.”
Just last spring fellow scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had told Zack about a robin sighting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, located approximately 300 miles to the east of the Utukok. But Zack had never heard of a sighting in the National Petroleum Reserve [NPR-A] where he has spent the last six years conducting ornithological research.
Because of their ease of mobility, birds are among the first species to respond to changes in the environment that effect temperature, food and habitat availability. Traditionally, the American robin’s range extends from Central Mexico all the way to the northern edge of the boreal forest, which peters out just above the Arctic Circle.
“This is certainly not a bird ever characterized as being an Arctic breeding bird,” says Zack.
But robins were not the only species to surprise the scientists. Harlequin ducks and white-crowned sparrows feeding amongst a group of red polls were also spotted. Like the robin, both were well beyond their traditional summertime turf in the boreal forest.
White-crowned sparrows, which traditionally can be found breeding south of the Brooks Range, have been spotted in the far North.
Photos courtesy of Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society
Much of the reason birds are attracted to the NPR-A is the peace and quiet that comes with such remoteness—a necessity for activities like mating, nesting and raising their young. After all, the NPR-A’s 23.5 million acres constitute the largest tract of undeveloped land in the United States.
But the downside is that because places like the Utukok River are so far beyond the beaten path, there is little scientific data available on the region beyond population surveys of a few native species.
“This area is so remote that it hasn’t been subject to the same surveys that other places have experienced,” explains Zack, who after the Utukok expedition learned that in fact rafters had previously seen robins in the region but never reported them. It is not unusual for 300 to 400 studies to occur over the course of the year in a place like Yellowstone National Park, an area one-sixth the size of the NPR-A. By comparison, half a dozen studies might be conducted in the NPR-A.
Birds like the red poll and red-breasted merganser, both of which breed in the Arctic, may deal with increasing competition for food from southern species.
Photo courtesy of Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society
Because so little is known about the region, both Zack and Hilty are reluctant to say that their sightings of the American robin, White-crowned sparrow or harlequin ducks are unequivocal harbingers of climate change. Without data, neither Zack nor Hilty wants to rule out the possibility of a unique explanation for each occurrence. But Zack says the birds’ presence is consistent with predictions of what a warming Arctic will look like.
“It’s collectively a signal of a changing Arctic,” he says. “When we start to see birds that have leap-frogged the entire boreal forest then that means the deck is going to be totally reshuffled.”
A group of harlequin ducks, a species popular with hunters throughout North America, is spotted swimming far north of its traditional southern range.
Photo courtesy of Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society
Thirty-foot alder stands lining the river, like the one the robins sang from, were also an undeniable sign of change to the scientists. Lack of thick undergrowth indicated the likelihood that the alders were relatively recent arrivals from more southern climes. Zack suspects that the proliferation of woody vegetation, like alder, is enabling species like the American robin to move northward.
“They need park-like settings where you have a band of vegetation that’s tall. They fly out from that to feed out in open areas and retreat back into it,” says Zack. “They need that juxtaposition and the Arctic is adding the woody vegetation to the already open space, making it robin-like habitat.”
Dark, black box
Zack says trying to make predictions about how climate change will affect the Arctic feels like looking into a dark, black box. The uncertainties are exponentially greater than the certainties.
But one thing is clear—relative to most other ecosystems the Arctic has never been known for its abundance. Increasing species diversity and population may lead to problems of supply and demand. Robins could outcompete shrikes for insects and ptarmigan for large fruits like bear berries. White-crowned sparrows and red polls may have to fight over willow fruits and insects. Harlequin ducks, mergansers and long-tailed ducks all subsist on the same kinds of fish and clams.
Other potential risks include disease transmission from newly arrived southern species and changes in the predator-prey balance.
Only time will tell if southern species like those seen on the Utukok River have taken up permanent residence and what might follow in their wake.
Molly Loomis lives in Teton Valley, Idaho near the borders of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. A contributor to Sierra, Backpacker and Outside magazines, her work focuses on environmental issues occurring around the world. She is a recent recipient of the Middlebury Environmental Journalism Fellowship. Read her blog, Wild Matter.