Wilderness Designation for the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

66th General Assembly
December 2001
Boston, Massachusetts


In Genesis we learn that when God placed the first human beings in the Garden of Eden, God gave humanity a dual role in relationship to the surrounding environment, (l'av'dah ul'shamrah), "to till it and tend it" (Genesis 2:15). This demands a balanced approach to development, a careful consideration of the competing needs both to employ the resources with which God has provided us and to protect those resources for generations to come. We are also taught to "be mindful then that you do not spoil and destroy My world, for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it" ( Kohelet Rabbah 7:13). Our tradition teaches that we must work to protect God's creation from unnecessary destruction.

Designated by President Eisenhower in 1960 and expanded by President Carter in 1980, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) stands as one of America's last true wilderness areas. The refuge, located on Alaska's northeast coast, is roughly 19 million acres and contains numerous fragile arctic ecosystems, including the habitats of caribou, polar bears, wolves, arctic foxes, and snowbirds. Perhaps the most notable ecosystem is found in the coastal plain, an area of about 1.5 million acres (about 8 percent of the refuge) along the Arctic Ocean. It is the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that is being targeted for oil exploration and drilling. The coastal plain represents the last 5percent of Alaska's vast North Slope that is not already open to oil exploration and drilling.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 affected the American political scene in a profound way so that the tenor of the discussion about many salient issues changed in their wake. One of these issues is the debate over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Since the attacks, proponents of drilling have raised the additional argument that such an action is now a matter of national security, that drilling in the ANWR is necessary in order to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But drilling in the coastal plain is not the way to meet our nation's very vital energy needs. While estimates differ as to the amount of oil recoverable from ANWR, it is likely that the quantity comes close to that which can be saved by enacting measures aimed at conservation and increasing fuel-economy standards. We believe that our nation's energy needs can be better met through energy efficiency, conservation, and the development of alternative energy sources. We recognize, for example, that increasing fuel-efficiency standards for new passenger vehicles could save significantly more oil than the likely yield from the coastal plain.

Since the Commission on Social Action first passed a resolution dealing with ANWR in 1988, various plans to drill in this pristine ecosystem have been proposed. A 1991 UAHC resolution opposed drilling in this area "until it has been demonstrated that it can be done in an environmentally sound manner and until it has been approved both federally and locally in the affected areas, after public debate." However, the last decade has shown no greater promise of finding an environmentally sound method of drilling.

Drilling will adversely impact the culture of the indigenous Gwitch'in people, who depend on the Porcupine caribou for subsistence and cultural expression. According to a Department of Interior report, drilling is likely to cause a 30 to 40 percent decline in the Porcupine caribou population and could destroy much of the fragile ecosystem. Merely opposing drilling may not be sufficient to protect this unique ecosystem for generations to come nor to safeguard the way of life of the Gwitch'in. Rather, it is increasingly clear that the only guaranteed way to sustain this delicate region and its people is to permanently protect it. Wilderness designation would permanently protect the coastal plain from oil exploration and drilling.

Therefore, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations resolves to:

  1. Support legislation to designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Area 1002) as wilderness;
  2. Continue to urge Congress and the administration to support research and the development of long-term sustainable clean energy systems, together with measures for energy conservation and efficiency; and
  3. Recommit itself and urge our congregations and their members to recommit themselves to energy conservation in their own patterns of consumption and to the development and use of alternative energy sources for their vehicles, homes, businesses, and organizations.