Happy Birthday, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge! May You Always Remain Wild.

A view of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | USFWS

Just in time for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 53rd birthday, which we celebrate today, legislation was introduced to designate the Arctic Coastal Plain as wilderness.

On November 13, 2013, Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced legislation (S. 1695) to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) by designating its coastal plain as Wilderness. Designating an area as Wilderness is something that only Congress can do. Wilderness designation is the highest level of protection to land or water in the United States – and indeed, the world. If this legislation and its companion in the House were to pass and become law, the coastal plain of the Arctic NWR would be permanently protected and drilling for oil and gas – an ongoing debate for over three decades – would be off the table for good.


Background on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:

Established as the Arctic National Wildlife Range on December 6, 1960 by President Eisenhower, it remains the only refuge established to “protect wilderness values”. Eisenhower’s designation included 8.9 million acres but was expanded to its current 19.6 million acres by Congress and President Carter in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Under ANILCA the Range was renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and much of the refuge was designated as Wilderness. ANILCA also prohibited oil and gas development on the coastal plain in the northeast corner of the refuge along the Beaufort Sea, but allowed the opportunity for a future act of Congress to allow it.

Polar Bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | Susanne Miller

The Arctic NWR’s coastal plain encompasses approximately 1.2 million acres and was never designated as Wilderness as part of ANILCA. Nevertheless, this area is the biological hot spot of the entire refuge and the center of heated debate over oil and gas drilling for more than 30 years. Polar and grizzly bears, wolves, and muskox are just a few of the more than 250 animal species that depend on the coastal plain. Millions of birds, representing some 125 species, migrate to the Coastal Plain to nest, rear their young, molt, and feed. The coastal plain is not only one of the most significant on-shore polar bear denning habitats in the U.S. but also the most important habitat for the Porcupine caribou herd, named for the Porcupine River.

Oil and Gas

The coastal plain has long been the contentious issue surrounding the Arctic NWR – the line in the sand with supporters of expanding our domestic oil production at virtually any cost on one side and those who seek to protect the Arctic NWR forever as a large-scale ecosystem on the other.

With the Gulf Coast disaster in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, we are familiar with the kinds of damage that can occur with oil spills in water.  Drilling in the Arctic NWR would be on land and similar to the type of operations at the nearby Prudhoe Bay oil fields.  Since 1978, there have been three major spills at Prudhoe Bay totaling more than 17,000 barrels. We know that there is no totally safe way to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic NWR, no way to guarantee wildlife will not be harmed by resource extraction in the refuge, and no way to guarantee the Arctic NWR will be protected for future generations were Congress to allow oil and gas exploration in the refuge.

The only way to guarantee the protection of the Arctic NWR is to permanently protect it with Wilderness designation and we applaud the FWS for including a thorough Wilderness review in the CCP process. The final CCP is expected to be released sometime in 2014.


The Arctic NWR, among the best-known refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System, is home to muskox, polar bears, wolves, shorebirds and many other diverse species of wildlife. The 100-mile coastal plain of the refuge plays a critical role as the calving grounds for 129,000 caribou that make up the Porcupine herd.

Arctic NWR also provides vital nesting habitat for millions of migratory birds representing 135 species from all over the United States and other countries – there’s a good chance, no matter where you live in the U.S., that you’ve seen birds that spend time in this pristine Wilderness.

 The Arctic Refuge coastal plain represents the last 5% of Alaska’s north coast that remains legally closed to oil and gas exploration and development. The other 95% of Alaska’s coastal plain is already open to potential oil and gas development. Interestingly enough, this same 5% is also considered the biological heart of the refuge. Drilling in the Arctic Refuge would introduce roads and pipelines spider-webbing across hundreds of thousands of acres on the coastal plain.

We applaud Senators Cantwell and Kirk for their leadership in introducing legislation to permanently protect the Arctic NWR and we will work to ensure its passage.


To learn more about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, click HERE

Want to help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Consider a Donation to NWRA!


Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2013/12/happy-birthday-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge-may-you-always-remain-wild/

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