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Obama Finalizes Call to Expand Protected Area in Arctic Refuge

FILE - A polar bear and two cubs are seen on the Beaufort Sea coast in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this undated photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Obama administration on Friday finalized its recommendation to expand protected areas of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, calling on Congress to block about 12 million acres (5 million hectares) from oil and gas drilling.

President Barack Obama, in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner released by the White House, stood by his administration's earlier recommendation to preserve the state's Arctic refuge, setting up a likely battle with the Republican-led Congress over the oil-rich area.

"This area is one of the most beautiful, undisturbed places in the world. It is a national treasure and should be permanently protected through legislation for future generations,'' Obama said in the letter.

The Interior Department first released its proposal calling for the protected area in January. The plan met instant rebuke from Republicans, who are making a push for energy a major part of their platform ahead of the 2016 elections.

In his letter to Boehner on Friday, Obama said the department's Fish and Wildlife Service had reviewed the public comments and the best available science in making its final recommendation. He called on Congress to pass legislation authorizing the expansion of the refuge, a move likely to face an uphill battle in Congress.

The additional 12 million acres, in addition to the current off-limits area, would bring the refuge's total protected wilderness area to nearly 20 million acres (8 million hectares).

Environmentalists have hailed the proposed designation, the highest level of federal protection under which oil and gas drilling is banned, while Republicans have long called for opening up the area to boost domestic oil drilling.

More than 15 environmental advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and the Alaska Wilderness League, hailed the decision in a joint statement.

"We're pleased to see President Obama courageously follow through on his commitment to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,'' said Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark.

The proposal calls for the wilderness area to include the refuge's Coastal Plain as well as four rivers: the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut and Marsh Fork Canning.