ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — President Donald Trump said Thursday he "really didn't care" about opening a portion of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling but insisted it be included in tax legislation at the urging of others.
Addressing fellow Republicans at the House and Senate Republican Member Conference in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, mentioned the wildlife refuge known as ANWR in Alaska's northeast corner as he recounted accomplishments in the last year, including the tax bill passed by Congress in December.
Trump said he "never appreciated ANWR so much" but was told of its importance by others.
"A friend of mine called up, who's in that world and in that business, and 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.' He said, 'Ronald Reagan and every president has wanted to get ANWR approved."
The comment had a major impact, Trump said.
"I really didn't care about it, and then when I heard that everybody wanted it — for 40 years, they've been trying to get it approved, and I said, 'Make sure you don't lose ANWR,'" Trump said.
Oil in the refuge, Trump said, is one of the great potential fields anywhere in the world.
"That by itself is a big bill," he said.
Most Alaska elected officials supported drilling in the refuge, home to polar bears, muskoxen, wolves and grizzlies.
But drilling is strongly opposed by environmental groups and Gwich'in Natives in Alaska and Canada who depend on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for their subsistence lifestyle.
The 200,000-animal herd migrates 200 miles (320 kilometers) annually from Canada's Yukon Territory to the refuge, where females give birth to calves on the coastal plain, a strip of flat tundra between the mountains and Arctic Ocean.
The director of the Alaska Wilderness League in a statement condemned Trump's comments.
"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," said Adam Kolton.
He called it a retreat from the GOP great conservation legacy stretching back to Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. Millions of Americans do not want to see the country squeeze every drop of oil out of national parks and refuges just to increase exports, he said