Obama's good timing on the arctic

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge covers only a small part of Alaska. Smaller still is the coastal plain of the refuge, a narrow, 1.5-million-acre strip flanking the Beaufort Sea. The plain is an ecological and biological wonder, the hunting grounds for Alaskan natives and home to caribou, polar bears, all manner of marine life and countless bird species. It may also contain one of the biggest unexploited oil fields in America.

For all these reasons, the plain has been the subject of a bitter tug of war between politicians and oil companies that covet its commercial resources, on one side, and conservationists who think that opening it would be a calamity — "the equivalent," the former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt once said, "of offering Yellowstone National Park for geothermal drilling, or calling for bids to construct hydropower dams in the Grand Canyon."

President Obama has now come down emphatically on the side of conservation. Obama proposes to set aside more than 12 million acres of the refuge as permanent wilderness, including the 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain. Wilderness designation is the highest level of protection the government can confer on public land. It would bar commercial development of any kind, including, crucially, oil-and-gas exploration.

The proposal is the latest instance of the president's use of his executive authority, which he has deployed in an effort to circumvent a hostile Congress on issues like immigration and climate change. While Congress must put the final stamp of approval on any wilderness proposal, under law the areas so designated by a president will receive full wilderness protections until Congress acts.

Obama's timing was just right. Estimates of the oil under the coastal plain have varied wildly over the years, but while extracting the oil never seemed worth the devastation it would cause, it seems less so now that major new oil deposits have been discovered in the Lower 48 and consumption is dwindling along with America's reliance on imports.