In a boon to commercial fishermen, conservationists and Native Alaskans, President Obama on Tuesday withdrew the waters of Alaska's Bristol Bay from oil and gas development, vowing to protect the world's biggest sockeye salmon fishery.
Calling the region "one of America's greatest natural resources and a massive economic engine, not only for Alaska but for America," Obama said he was taking it "off the bidder's block" and would "make sure that it is preserved into the future."
"Bristol Bay has supported Native Americans in the Alaska region for centuries," Obama said in a video message released Tuesday. "It supports $2 billion in the commercial fishing industry. It supplies America with 40% of its wild-caught seafood. It is a natural wonder, and it's something that's just too precious to be putting out to the highest bidder."
In 2010, Obama declared the verdant, 52,234-square-mile area off Alaska's southwest coast temporarily off-limits to oil and gas leasing, a protection that was set to expire in 2017. Tuesday's action safeguards the important habitat area indefinitely.
The area, also known as the North Aleutian Basin Outer Continental Shelf, has never been the site of offshore drilling, although the Interior Department opened it up to exploration and development in 1986 with the controversial Lease Sale 92.
But after the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill befouled Prince William Sound, Congress added the region to a nearly nationwide moratorium on offshore drilling, and the federal government paid $95 million to buy back leases from oil companies.
In ensuing years, over various administrations, protections for the pristine area blinked on and off.
Federal officials estimate the net value of Bristol Bay's oil and gas resources at $7.7 billion. But the fishery is worth $2 billion annually, or $80 billion over the life span of the fossil fuel deposit, according to outgoing Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).
"Much of Alaska's coastal waters, especially in the promising Arctic, are open for oil and gas exploration and development," Begich said. "I stand with the majority of Alaskans who agree that protecting Bristol Bay's salmon fishery is a top priority."
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she did not object to Tuesday's decision, "given the lack of interest by industry and the public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration in this area." But she accused the administration of hobbling economic development in the resource-rich state.
"We are not asking to produce everywhere," Murkowski said. "But right now, we are not allowed to produce anywhere."
Alaska's newly elected independent governor, Bill Walker, noted Bristol Bay's importance to the fishing industry and said it should be protected.
"I look forward to working cooperatively — in Alaska's clear interest — with the federal government to safely and economically develop regions of our state and offshore waters for oil and gas," he said. "Bristol Bay, however, is not that place."
The oil and gas industry criticized Obama's decision and its timing, contending that it ultimately hurts the country as a whole.
"Today's actions serve to undermine this nation's ability to achieve an 'all of the above' energy strategy that corresponds to our constantly evolving energy needs," said Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Assn. It "takes Bristol Bay off the table for consideration for generations."
But Native Alaskan, conservation and fishing industry groups applauded the decision.
David Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Assn., called it "about the best Christmas present that President Obama could possibly give us." Robin Samuelsen, board chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., described it as Obama's "big move" and "monumental news."
"This is one of the most important ocean protection decisions that this or any president has ever made," said Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic program director for the Pew Charitable Trusts. "This is a victory for the people of Bristol Bay who have fought for more than 30 years.
"There are just some places that are too special to risk," she said. "Bristol Bay is one of those places."
But Tuesday's action is only a partial protection for the remote region. Federal officials are expected to decide in coming months whether to allow the largest open-pit mine in North America to be dug in the Bristol Bay watershed.
This year, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the proposed Pebble Mine would have a devastating effect on the same fishery that Obama acted to preserve Tuesday.
"These are the same salmon that go up those rivers" in the Bristol Bay watershed area, Heiman said. Obama's action "protects the same salmon that are at risk by the Pebble Mine."