President Obama announced a plan on Sunday to preserve Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that includes asking the GOP-led Congress to designate more than 12 million acres as a protected wilderness, which includes the potentially oil-rich Coastal Plain.
The designation would halt oil exploration in Alaska's northeast corner and give the region the highest degree of federal protection available to public lands.
The refuge's Coastal Plain has long been at the center of the struggle between conservationists and advocates of greater energy exploration in the United States. And Obama's efforts to win wilderness designation will likely face stiff resistance in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Alaska's top elected officials -- including Gov. Bill Walker and senior Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans -- have already reacted angrily at the administration's moves.
“I have tried to work with this administration, even though they've made it extremely difficult every step of the way,” said Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “But those days are officially over. We are left with no choice but to hit back as hard as we can."
Obama announced the move in a 60-second White House video.
“Alaska’s National Wildlife refuge is an incredible place -- pristine, undisturbed,” he said. “It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska native communities. But it’s very fragile.”
Obama said the move is part of a comprehensive Interior Department plan to protect the refuge and designate new areas for preservation and that he will call on Congress “to make sure they take it one step further” by designating the area as wilderness.
If Congress agrees, it would be the largest wilderness designation in the country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.