Why protect ANWR?

by Heather Kallevig

For more than 30 years, the state of Alaska has been a high priority on environmental organizations watch list. Known as “the Last Frontier,” anyone who has visited the state of Alaska knows it deserves the name. With more coastlines than the contiguous United States combined, 3 million lakes, and 663,300 square miles for its 736,732 people, Alaska is truly a sanctuary for wildlife (Facts about Alaska, n.d.). The state is also a rich area for natural resources. The clash of these two advantages is the reason for many long-standing disputes over Alaska’s frontiers.   In 2015, environmental advocates achieved a coup when the Obama administration proposed an extension of “wilderness” in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to 12.28 million acres. While this recommendation does not ensure the region’s protection, it is a significant step in the right direction. Nonprofit organization’s crisis communication tactics have played an instrumental role in gaining the support of other organizations – private and public – and the attention of the people, to aid and protect Alaska’s lands (Sanders, 2015).

The future of ANWR has rested in the balance for years. Coined, “The American Serengeti” for its rich biodiversity and pristine ecosystems, ANWR on Alaska’s North Slope offers habitat to over 200 species of birds, 42 species of fish, and 45 mammals – including the polar bear and a herd of 120,000 caribou (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 2015). Established as a refuge in 1960 by the Eisenhower Administration, this region is also protected from oil and gas drilling. The issue concerning ANWR has seen several threatening events since the 1980s, which have brought the refuge into public attention. The first took place in 1989, when a bill to open the refuge nearly passed, failing only because public attention was so wrought by the disastrous Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

While this disaster brought discussions on ANWR to a halt, recent developments have “tipped” the refuge back into the public eye. “Despite the current administration’s repeal of the offshore drilling ban, 130 members of Congress have cosponsored pending Arctic refuge wilderness bills” (Englehard, 2010). Other protected areas in Alaska are also under contestation including the Chukchi Sea and the National Petroleum Reserve, the decisions concerning ANWR could set an important precedent for Alaska’ future. Lobbyists for both environmental organizations and energy corporations are actively vying for the future of ANWR, hoping to sway future policy in their favor (Eilperin, 2015).

Environmental organizations heavily contest drilling in prominent wildlife sanctuaries. The history of oil and gas extraction in Alaska is polluted by ongoing, distressing mishaps, which dumped crude materials into important breeding and nesting areas. The Exxon-Valdez oil spill is the worse case, but not the only instance. Environmentalists and their allies are striving to ensure these events don’t increase by limiting drilling in key sanctuaries.

Rallying for ANWR

Nonprofit organizations must often work with limited resources to complete large jobs. This is why it is essential for these groups to build and maintain relationships with like-minded organizations. By building coalitions, they gain financial resources, geographic spread, and communicative manpower. In response to ANWR, they developed a large coalition of individuals, local, state, and national organizations. These included noted journalists, local and national politicians, and pro-environment, anti-drilling organizations. Other noted supporters include the National Wildlife Federation, the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Senator John McCain, while running for president on the republican ticket, with an Alaskan vice president, quoted “As far as ANWR is concerned, I don’t want to drill in the Grand Canyon, and I don’t want to drill in the Everglades. This is one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the world” (Khanna, 2008). Words like this, prove the support of committed groups and individuals is invaluable. The strength and reach of the coalition is a strong and valuable tool in a crisis campaign.

One of the most valuable responses for a nonprofit in crisis is to gain the support of the general public. Often impacted individuals are unaware of potential threats; by informing the public NPOs can gain the support of motivated and influential advocates. Organizations utilize several tactics to inform their publics. These include weekly newsletters, regular social media postings, relevant blogs, and a regularly updated webpage. Organizations’ state and local chapters are also instrumental in gaining the attention of the media, maintaining relationships with journalists, and encouraging the regular publication of crisis-related stories. These stories often link to a group’s main webpage where individuals have the opportunity to donate, sign petitions, and send letters or e-mails to their state and national representatives. These final steps are also important for gaining the attention of policy leaders in Washington.

The final step taken by environmental NPOs is to gain the attention of government officials through constituent attention and building relationships with leaders through necessary lobbying. In the American political system, it is necessary to contribute to candidate funding to lobby important issues. Because of limited funding, environmental organization’s contribution is quite small when compared to large industries and corporations with competing views. This is why the other two tactics – building coalitions and informing the publics – are also essential for an NPO facing crisis.

In modern society, environmental nonprofit organizations are constantly on the brink of crisis. There is an ongoing chance that one of the many issues watched by an organization will suddenly tip over into crisis. When this takes place, organizations must be ready to respond quickly. To do so, they must be prepared with a communication action plan – an established coalition of supporters, a means for networking and informing the public, and the presence of influential lobbyists in Washington. The primary purpose of environmental nonprofits is to influence public policy, organizational action, or social norms and values (Smith, 1997). In the case of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, their success can be gauged by President Obama’s January 2015 endorsement to further protect this valuable sanctuary. Their dedicated and widespread communication tactics are a fundamental element of this victory. It is likely, this is not last time ANWR will be under attack, therefore it is important that environmentalists and their supporters remain prepared with a plan in place for rapid mobilization when the future tipping event strikes again.

Eilperin, J. (2015, January 26). Obama administration to propose new wilderness protections in Arctic refuge — Alaska Republicans declare war. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/01/25/obama-administration-to-propose-new-wilderness-protections-in-arctic-refuge-alaska-republicans-declare-war/

Facts About Alaska. (n.d.). Retrieved April 2, 2015, from http://alaska.gov/kids/learn/facts.htm

Khanna, S. (2008, June 19). McCain Now Says He’s ‘More Than Happy’ To Consider Flip-Flopping On Alaskan Oil Drilling. Retrieved April 2, 2015, from http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2008/06/19/24920/mccain-anwr/

Sanders, S. (2015, January 25). Obama Proposes New Protections For Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Retrieved April 2, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/01/25/379795695/obama-proposes-new-protections-for-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge

Smith, S. (1997, March 15). Developing new reflexes in framing stories. Paper presented at the Pew Center/RTNDF workshop “Civic Journalism: Doing it Daily,” Chicago. Retrieved February 16, 2006 from: http://www.pewcenter.org/doingcj/civiccat/displayCivcat.php?id=97