Happy Birthday, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Few places on the planet have known less humanity than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There are no official roads or campsites within the borders of the refuge. The Gwich’in people have managed this sacred land with great care for thousands of years, leaving small footprints. Herds of caribou cross its rivers; eagles overlook its plains; Polar bears, foxes, porcupines and over 200 species of migratory birds thrive in this icy sanctuary above the Arctic Circle. This often frozen tundra is a richer and more biologically diverse place than most of us can imagine.

Coastal plain with cottongrass, Photo Danielle Brigida via Flickr CC BY 2.0

On December 6, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower preserved this natural wonder by creating 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 rich animal and plant life, fortified a delicate ecosystem, mitigated global warming, and safeguarded sacred native lands. Unfortunately, this designation did not completely shield the refuge from the woes of fossil fuel development.

The debate over how to manage the arctic refuge dates back to 1930 when the forester Bob marshall wrote on “repelling the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth”. As a journalist Brooke Jarvis said Marshall saw the arctic lands he had explored as “not another chance to continue pursuing America’s so-called manifest destiny, but a chance to finally stop pursuing it.”

Nonetheless, the hunt persisted. For decades, oil and gas developers have been obsessed with the possibility of oil beneath the Refuge’s coastal plain. In 1980, Congress asked the United States Department of the Interior to investigate the coastal plain for potential oil and gas development, reserving the decision whether or not to allow oil leasing and drilling. But industrializing this area to extract dirty fossil fuels would put a stake in the biological heart of the refuge. The coastal plain is vital for the herd of 200,000 Porcupine caribou, which use the area each year for protection and food during the birth and rearing of their young.

Now, for decades, we have been locked in a perpetual struggle to protect the Arctic refuge. In 2017, proponents of drilling temporarily prevailed when Congress opened up the Arctic refuge to oil and gas development. The first lease sale under this flawed decision took place in January 2021. There, the biological heart of the refuge was broken up and sold to the highest bidder; nine plots of land have been sold and a second lease sale has been scheduled for 2024.

The reasons to protect the refuge are endless. Drilling there is fiscally reckless; 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 worry about a place close to home, an area above the Arctic Circle seems so far away to most of us. As a result, I have never been to the shelter, and I suspect you have never been there either. The vast majority of Americans are less likely to visit the North Slope of Alaska than almost any other place in the United States. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a private plane, or if you’re ready to hike and backpack from Fairbanks, Alaska with all the food and provisions you’ll need, this definitely worth it. By all accounts, it’s spectacular. Yet protecting this place is not a question of whether or not we can visit it.

Photo: Caribou with mountains Danielle Brigida via Flickr CC BY 2.0

To protect the arctic refuge is to protect 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, which should not be disrupted by industrialization. This rings especially true in our current era of advanced technology. Our scientific and technical ingenuity makes it easier than ever to conserve, use energy efficiently and get all the energy we need from renewable sources.

We have come a long way in 61 years, and yet the Arctic Refuge remains in peril. On the refuge’s anniversary this year, however, hope lives on. The Build Back Better Act (BBBA), which was passed by the House of Representatives, provides protections for the arctic refuge. The bill would end the Arctic oil leasing program and buy back parcels of land already sold.

This victory bodes well for the refuge’s future, but it is now up to the Senate to pass its version of the Build Back Better Act to protect our nation’s greatest wilderness from the devastating consequences of oil drilling. The BBBA is a perfect opportunity to lead the charge towards 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)

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Betty T. Simpson