Few places on the planet have experienced less humanity than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There are no roads or official campgrounds within the refuge’s borders. The Gwich’in people have stewarded this sacred land with great care for thousands of years, leaving small footprints. Herds of caribou ford its rivers; eagles bank above its plains; polar bears, foxes, porcupines and more than 200 species of migratory birds thrive in this frosty sanctuary above the Arctic Circle. This often frozen tundra is a place more biologically rich and diverse than most of us can imagine possible.
Coastal Plain with cottongrass, Photo Danielle Brigida via Flickr CC BY 2.0
On Dec. 6, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower preserved this natural wonder by establishing 19 million acres as the Arctic National Wildlife Range—later renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In doing so, President Eisenhower protected critical habitat for a wealth of animal and plant life, fortified a delicate ecosystem, mitigated global warming, and safeguarded sacred indigenous land. Unfortunately, though, this designation did not fully protect the refuge from the woes of fossil fuel development.
The debate about how to handle the Arctic Refuge dates back to 1930 when forester Bob Marshall wrote about “repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth.” As journalist Brooke Jarvis said, Marshall saw the Arctic lands he had explored as “not another chance to keep chasing America's so-called Manifest Destiny, but a chance to finally stop chasing it.”
Nevertheless, the chase persisted. For decades, oil and gas developers have obsessed over the possibility of oil below the refuge’s coastal plain. In 1980, Congress directed the U.S. Department of the Interior to research the coastal plain for potential oil and gas development, reserving for itself the decision whether to allow oil leasing and drilling. But industrializing this area to dredge up dirty fossil fuels would put a stake right through the biological heart of the refuge. The coastal plain is vital for the 200,000 strong Porcupine caribou herd, who annually use this area for protection and sustenance as they birth and nurture their calves.
Now, for decades, we’ve been locked in a perennial struggle to protect the Arctic Refuge. In 2017, drilling proponents temporarily prevailed when Congress opened up the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas development. The first lease sale under that misguided decision was held in January 2021. There, the refuge’s biological heart was parceled up and sold to the highest bidder; nine tracts of land were sold, and a second lease sale will be held before 2024.
There are endless reasons to protect the refuge. Drilling there is fiscally unwise; it defies the wishes of the majority of the American public; it threatens wildlife; and it exacerbates our climate crisis—to name a few.
While it’s easy to care about a place close to home, a region above the Arctic Circle seems so far away for most of us. As a result, I’ve never been to the refuge, and I suspect you’ve never been there either. The vast majority of Americans are less likely to visit the north slope of Alaska than almost any other spot in the United States. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a private plane, or you’re up for hiking and backpacking there from Fairbanks, Alaska—with all of the food and provisions you’ll need—it’s surely worth the effort. By all accounts, it’s spectacular. Still, protecting this place isn’t about whether or not we can visit.
Photo: Caribou with mountains Danielle Brigida via Flickr CC BY 2.0
Protecting the Arctic Refuge means protecting the caribou and the wolf, the eagle and the polar bear, the mountain and the river, the Gwich’in life and culture, the beauty and the silence, that should remain undisturbed by industrialization. This rings especially true in our current age of advanced technology. Our scientific and engineering ingenuity makes it easier than ever to conserve, use energy efficiently, and get all the power we need from renewable sources.
We’ve come a long way in 61 years, and yet the Arctic Refuge remains in jeopardy. On the refuge’s anniversary this year, however, hope endures. The Build Back Better Act (BBBA), which has passed through the House of Representatives, provides protections for the Arctic Refuge. The bill would end the Arctic oil leasing program and buy back the tracts of land already sold.
This victory bodes well for the refuge’s future, but it’s now up to the Senate to pass its version of the Build Back Better Act to keep our nation’s greatest wild place safe from oil drilling’s devastating consequences. The BBBA is a perfect opportunity to lead the charge toward a more sustainable, carbon-free future in which wildlife and humanity can coexist harmoniously.
Photo: Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)