A bipartisan call to protect the Arctic

By:  Seattle pi - Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle PI

On a raft trip in Alaska’s vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Sen. Maria Cantwell squinted into a spotting scope and saw BOTH a grizzly bear and a wolverine.

“Is this unusual?” she asked Seattle businessman Tom Campion, who had organized the trip.  The sight of two such predators, so close together, had Campion’s jaw dropping.

Cantwell has become a champion of the Arctic.  On Wednesday, she and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois introduced legislation that would extend wilderness protection to 1.56 million acres in the refuge’s much-fought-over Coastal Plain.

The Coastal Plain, along the Beaufort Sea,  is coveted by Big Oil and its political allies.  It is calving ground to the giant Porcupine Caribou Herd and one of North America’s last places where the relationship of predator and prey is undisturbed.

Advocates for oil drilling have denigrated the Coastal Plain.  The Bush administration’s interior secretary, Gale Norton, called it “flat white nothingness.”  Conservative blogger Jonah Goldberg of the National Review flew over the plain and produced fuzzy pictures of snow.

The folks who do visit find it very different.  They watch in fascination as caribou appear out of, and disappear into, Arctic mists.  Musk oxen march through camp.  Angry gyrfalcons fly low over rafting parties that pass their nests.  Plovers try to distract Arctic foxes trying to get at eggs in their nests.

The place is a “national treasure,” Cantwell argued.  “We need to advance forward-looking solutions for America’s energy future while preserving this treasured pristine land and the unique ecosystem that depends on it.”

“Designating this land as wilderness will benefit generations to come,” Kirk added.

Both Bush presidents wanted to open what they called “ANWR” to oil drilling, and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin led chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill” on the campaign trail.

They came close twice.  Legislation to drill the refuge was advancing in Congress during the spring of 1989, until the day the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound and disorged 11.9 million gallons of North Slope crude to foul beaches as far as 350 miles away.

The late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, attached drilling in “ANWR” to a 2005 Defense Department authorization bill, figuring that no senator would threaten a filibuster in wartime.

Cantwell and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut did just that and rounded up enough votes to sustain the pre-Christmas filibuster.

Stevens directed a memorable Senate floor tantrum at Cantwell.  He threatened to — and did — come to Washington to campaign against her and gathered Big Oil’s buddies together in Anchorage for a fundraiser that raised $14,000 for Cantwell’s challenger.

Alas, some of those in attendance were soon-indicted members of the Alaska Legislature’s self-identified “Corrupt Bastards” club, and Republican Senate candidate Mike(!) McGavick hastily returned the money.  Cantwell won re-election by a 17-point margin.

She has since been to the Arctic Refuge, climbed the Grand Teton in Wyoming and last summer reached the 19,300-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.