The issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is clotted with controversy, and last week, Telluride leapt into the mire: A handful of regional businesses signed a petition aimed at convincing elected leaders to leave the ecological treasure alone.
The contested area spans nearly 20 million acres in northeastern Alaska and is the largest natural wildlife refuge in the country. It is an ecological and biological cradle, home to polar bears, Porcupine Caribou, and throngs of migratory birds. It also is revered as one of the last stretches of unfettered wilderness on our planet.
Conservationists, politicians and ironically timed oil spills — the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster occurred mere days after a Senate committee approved oil company leasing in the refuge — have so far derailed ANWR energy development. Further, given the complexities of drilling in the area and the low prices of oil and gas worldwide, it is uncertain whether Big Oil would even assume the challenge.
Yet, the potential profitability of the refuge’s untapped fields remains tantalizing.
A study conducted by the House Committee on Natural Resources estimates that developing ANWR for energy production could generate approximately $150 billion to $296 billion in new federal revenue, and a proposal released by the House Budget Committee on July 18 suggests that the government might finally be yielding to the temptation.
Although last week’s budgetary blueprint does not directly cite the Arctic refuge as a potential drill site, it does stipulate that the House Natural Resources Committee could be asked to generate $5 billion in revenue. Worries are that the administration will look to the refuge to obtain these funds.
This belief is shared by more than 100 businesses across the state, including some in the Telluride region.
‘PROTECT AND PRESERVE’
In a petition signed and circulated this week, the primarily outdoor Colorado businesses urged U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet to “protect and preserve” the refuge by leaving it closed to drilling.”
The businesses adopt a two-pronged argument, melding economic pragmatism with the need for environmental preservation to justify their positions. They refer to their status as an “economic powerhouse” in the state, and claim that the numbers speak for themselves.
“According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s economic data report released in June in Colorado alone, the outdoor industry generates $9.7 billion in wages and salaries, 229,000 direct Colorado jobs, $2 billion in state and local tax revenue, and over $28 billion in consumer spending annually,” a press release states.
The statistics released by the Outdoor Industry Association about Alaska are more modest but similarly impressive: $2.3 billion in wages and salaries, 72,000 direct jobs, $337 million in state and local tax revenue and $7.3 billion in consumer spending annually.
Penelope Gleason, a shareholder of Telluride Boot Doctors, agreed that the outdoor recreational industry’s long-term sustainability was one reason why her company signed the petition.
In addition, she believes that all industries — whether outdoor-related or not — would be wise to incorporate environmental preservation into their business models.
“As a business it doesn’t make sense to get rid of the only resource we really have. If we destroy air, water, the earth, what do we have left? More and more businesses are starting to realize that they are going to have to account for the health of the planet in their business plan,” Gleason said.
Local businesses also appear to feel the need to preserve the Arctic refuge on a visceral, philosophical level. In the mountain towns of Colorado, the mythical allure of Alaska is particularly intense.
“We need to have wilderness with a big W out there,” said Gleason.
Johnny Lombino, owner of SOL Paddle Boards, ascribes the depth with which Telluridians care about this issue to their level of immersion in the mountains and the natural terrain.
“I have seen what the oil and gas industry has done in Colorado,” he said. ‘I used to camp on Phil’s bike trail in Cortez, but there have been lots of oil and gas sell-offs in recent years that have limited the uses of the trail. …The same is true in Aztec, New Mexico — along the bike trails you now see gas wells.”
Gleason suggested an appeal to people’s sense of self-preservation. “There is kind of a delicate balance. We don’t know what happens when we mess with nature. People need to connect that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not just some abstract idea, it actually affects them,” she said.
Colorado communications firm Conservation Communications spearheaded the petition. Other area businesses signing it include Telluride Outside and Wagner Custom Skis.
According to Anna Peterson, owner and founder of Conservation Communications, the petition is steadily gaining traction and “many more (companies) are joining each day.” The support of at least one senator looks promising as well.
“Senator Bennet has been a champion of the Arctic refuge and has sponsored recent legislation to designate the Coastal Plain of the refuge as wilderness and protect the land from future development,” she said. “We don’t know where Senator Gardner stands on the issue and we hope he sees that Colorado companies want him to protect the refuge.”
County Commissioner Hilary Cooper speaks to the efficacy of measures like this. “From my experience promoting public lands conservation in D.C., petitions and statements from businesses are very effective. Decision-makers listen when economic leaders from large and small businesses alike speak up,” she said.
Telluridians have a penchant for rallying in the name of national causes, and many locals were involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
“In this new era of Trumpism and the growing resistance against his potentially harmful policies, I think we are going to see more individuals and businesses participating in national issues,” Cooper said.