Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

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Teshekpuk Lake provides a molting sanctuary for tens of thousands of birds like these Black Brant. The Obama administration opted to buffer the habitat in its first lease sale in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Critical Alaska Habitat Spared From Oil and Natural Gas Development

The Obama administration’s first lease sale in the 87-year-old petroleum reserve on the North Slope leaves sanctuary for caribou and geese.

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.