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Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. USFWS / Flickr

Trump: 'I Never Appreciated ANWR' Until Oil Industry Friend Called

The political battle over whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ( ANWR) for oil and gas exploration has raged for decades. Despite the majority of Americans opposing drilling in ANWR, pro-drilling Republicans have tried more than 50 times open up the pristine wilderness to energy development.

But President Trump was apparently indifferent to the matter until an oil industry friend told him that past presidents, including conservative icon Ronald Reagan, couldn't get drilling done.


"I never appreciated ANWR so much," Trump said Thursday during a speech at a Republican retreat in West Virginia. "A friend of mine called up who is in that world and in that business. He said, 'Is it true that you're thinking about ANWR?' I said 'Yeah, I think we're going to get it but you know …' He said, 'Are you kidding? That's the biggest thing by itself. Ronald Reagan and every president has wanted to get ANWR approved.' And after that I said 'Oh, make sure that is in the bill. It was amazing how that had an impact."

Congress lifted a 40-year drilling ban on the refuge after the Republican tax reform bill was approved in December. This " backdoor drilling provision," as environmentalists have dubbed it, was added to the tax reform package to secure the key vote of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who introduced the measure and has long championed the cause.

Trump's remarks, however, implied that he was the driving force behind the provision's inclusion.

"I really didn't care about it," he said. "Then when I heard that everybody wanted it, for 40 years, everybody tried to get it approved, 'Make sure you don't lose ANWR.'"

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest protected wilderness in the U.S., consists of more than 19 million acres of pristine landscapes and is home to 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species and more than 200 migratory bird species.

Republicans have targeted the so-called 1002 area on the Prudhoe Bay in Northern Alaska, which has an estimated 12 billion barrels of recoverable crude.

Adam Kolton, the executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, was critical of Trump's remarks.

"It's clear from President Trump's remarks that jamming Arctic Refuge drilling in the tax bill was always about politics and not a thoughtful energy policy," Kolton said. "President Trump should care that he signed a bill reversing not a Democratic policy, but protections that date back to Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Teddy Roosevelt. This is a retreat from the GOP great conservation legacy."

"Donald Trump might not care but millions of Americans do, and always have," he continued. "They care about protecting our last great wilderness. They care about the subsistence culture of the Gwich'in people whose way of life is now threatened. And they care about the polar bears, caribou and millions of migratory birds in this cherished landscape. They also care about the future of our climate, and do not want to see us squeeze every drop of oil out of our national parks and refuges just to increase our exports to places like China."

But Trump might care about ANWR more than he let on. After the speech, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) told Alaska Public Media that the president has cared about ANWR since at least last March. He and Sen. Murkowski even briefed Trump for nearly an hour on state issues and their request to open the refuge to drilling.

"After that meeting," Sullivan said, "Seeing him in different settings and stuff, a number of times, a number times, he would ask, 'Hey Dan, how are we doing on ANWR? We going to get that done?'"

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"I will lay this on the foot of those environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years. And you know what? This is on them," he said in the interview.

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"In many cases, it's these radical environmentalists who want nature to take its course. We have dead and dying timber. We can manage it using best science, best practices. But to let this devastation go on year after year after year is unacceptable, it's not going to happen. The president is absolutely engaged."

President Donald Trump has indeed vehemently blamed forest mismanagement ever since the recent batch of fires broke out, even threatening at one point to withhold federal funding if the forests weren't managed properly. During a visit to California Saturday to survey damage, Trump brought up forest management again, suggesting that the problem in California was that the forests were not raked enough.

"You look at other countries where they do it differently, and it's a whole different story," he said, as CNN reported. "I was with the president of Finland, and he said: 'We have a much different [sic] ..., we're a forest nation.' And they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem," he added.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, however, told a Finnish newspaper he did not recall suggesting raking to Trump.

"I mentioned [to] him that Finland is a land covered by forests and we also have a good monitoring system and network," he said.

Finnish people have taken to Twitter to poke fun at the U.S. President's statement using the hashtag "Raking America Great Again."

Despite Trump and Zinke's criticisms, the fact remains that the federal government controls almost 60 percent of the forests in California while the state controls only three percent. Paradise was surrounded by federal, not state, forests. Further, the fires in Southern California spread in suburban and urban areas, The Huffington Post reported.

Some think the emphasis put by Zinke and Trump on forest management is not about preventing fires at all but rather an attempt to justify opening more public forests to private logging interests.

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with land managers, private landowners, university staff, and the media about federal forestry and land management at Boise State University on June 2, 2017. USDA photo by Lance Cheung

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