Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

For 37 years, the Refuge Association has fought to keep this refuge closed to oil and gas development. In landmark 1980 legislation, an agreement was struck to open Prudhoe Bay for oil and gas exploitation and to expand the Arctic Refuge to 19.6 million acres and to create a vast wilderness area. In the coastal plain of the refuge, Congress mandated a study to determine whether the area should be wilderness or opened for oil and gas development. While there is oil in the coastal plain, experts agree that oil and gas development in this area would permanently and irreversibly disrupt the ecological integrity of the refuge.  

Polar bears | Gary Kramer/USFWS
Polar bears | Gary Kramer/USFWS

What Makes the Arctic Refuge So Special?

Abundant Wildlife
The Arctic Refuge is home to an incredible array of biodiversity. While the Arctic Refuge is perhaps best known for its resident polar bears, this landscape is also one of the few places on Earth where polar, brown (grizzly), and black bears can be found coexisting.

Polar bears could possibly go extinct in our lifetimes. Only 30,000 or so bears exist today, and roughly 50 bears come into the Arctic Refuge each year in September, with denning beginning in the late fall. These bears are part of the Southern Beaufort Sea population, which numbers about 900 animals. The USFWS says the Arctic Refuge is the only national conservation area where polar bears regularly den and the most consistently used polar bear land denning area in Alaska. The refuge is critical habitat for these animals, particularly as concerns mount over species loss due to the reduction of sea ice due to climate change.

More than 200 species of birds utilize the Arctic Refuge, and whether or not you have visited the refuge, odds are good that you have seen one of these migratory species in your own backyard. Birds migrate from the Arctic Refuge to every state and territory in the United States, and some even venture to other continents! This remote corner of Alaska is truly connected to all ends of the Earth.

Hundreds of thousands of caribou roam the Arctic Refuge, comprised of several distinct herds. The Porcupine Caribou Herd, the largest within the Arctic Refuge, returns to the refuge’s Coastal Plain each spring to calve and raise their young. It is this Coastal Plain, also known as the “1002 Area”, which would become the site of drilling operations were to proceed in the refuge.

Along with the species mentioned above, wolves, muskoxen, and a multitude of other species of wildlife can be found in the Arctic Refuge. For a more complete list, check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | Steve Chase/USFWS
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | Steve Chase/USFWS

Wild and Untouched Landscape
Approximately eight million acres of the 19.6 million-acre Arctic Refuge have been congressionally designated as wilderness. A wilderness designation under the Wilderness Act of 1964 is the highest level of land protection that can be awarded to our public lands, and is reserved only for the most wild and pristine landscapes that remain “untrammeled by man.”

The Arctic Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan recommends the entire refuge receive wilderness designation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the remaining acres to maintain their wilderness characteristic. In 2015, President Obama issued a formal recommendation to Congress that the entire refuge be protected as wilderness.

Alaska Native Peoples – A Human Rights Issue
The Arctic Refuge is not only a haven for wildlife – it’s home to people, too. For thousands of years, the Gwich’in (literally, “people of the land”) have lived in and around the land that today comprises Arctic Refuge. The Gwich’in are spiritually and physical linked to this landscape and its wildlife, and depend on a permanently protected Arctic Refuge for their very survival.

The Gwich’in rely on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for subsistence, i.e., without the caribou the Gwich’in could not survive in this remote environment. The herd’s calving grounds on the Coastal Plain, referred to by the Gwich’in as “the sacred place where life begins,” could be completely and irreversibly damaged by drilling equipment and infrastructure should it be permitted in the Arctic Refuge.

It’s not “the” Arctic Refuge, it’s “OUR” Arctic Refuge
The Arctic Refuge, like all 566 national wildlife refuges that make up the National Wildlife Refuge System, belongs to each and every American. The Arctic Refuge is a shared resource, and an integral part of our nation’s conservation heritage.

Ever since the Arctic Refuge was set aside for protection in 1960, it has enjoyed broad bipartisan support from the American people. It is up to all of us to ensure our Arctic Refuge remains permanently protected to safeguard its irreplaceable landscapes that its wildlife call home.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline transports oil from the Prudhoe Bay, adjacent to the Arctic Refuge on Alaska's North Slope, south across the state to the town of Valdez on the Gulf of Alaska | U.S. Geological Survey
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline transports oil from the Prudhoe Bay, adjacent to the Arctic Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope, south across the state to the town of Valdez on the Gulf of Alaska | U.S. Geological Survey

Why is the Arctic Refuge Threatened?

The ground beneath the Arctic Refuge, like much of Alaska, is believed to contain oil and natural gas reserves. Despite productive oil fields throughout the state, including nearby Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope, there has been an ongoing push by the extraction industry and Alaska’s congressional delegation to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling operations.

Drilling equipment and accompanied infrastructure would devastate the fragile Arctic landscape and harm refuge wildlife. Any leaks and spills, large or small, would exacerbate these damages and forever impair this American wilderness. We strongly believe that there are areas that should be off limits to development, and the Arctic Refuge was intended as such a place under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). We cannot go back on that promise now.

ANILCA, a landmark conservation law passed in 1980, allowed the State of Alaska to determine which of its lands would be utilized for natural resource extraction (e.g. the Nation Petroleum Reserve-Alaska) and which of its lands would be set aside for conservation. It was through ANILCA that the Arctic Range was expanded to its current 19.6 million acres and became the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Today, pro-drilling advocates are seeking to renege on this agreement and drill for oil on lands agreed (and codified into law) would be set aside for permanent protection. When it comes to the Arctic Refuge, we believe there is simply no room to compromise – we already did.

Current Threat

The push to drill in the Arctic Refuge has gained renewed strength under the Trump Administration. The President’s FY18 Budget explicitly recommended opening the Arctic Refuge to drilling operations and claimed this would generate $1.8 billion in revenues over 10 years, without citing any information on how they reached this number.

Only nine days after the President’s budget was released, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed an executive order directing the U.S. Geological Survey to update their estimates of potential oil reserves beneath the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain.

The Trump Administration has made their intentions for the Arctic Refuge unquestionably clear. However, the Arctic Refuge’s future will ultimately be determined by the actions of the U.S. Congress.

Pro-drilling allies in Congress are planning to add a provision to drill in the Arctic Refuge to their eventual tax overhaul legislation, citing the Administration’s $1.8 billion as part of their mitigation for reduced tax revenues. This special legislation will require only a 51-vote majority in the Senate before it is sent to the President’s desk.

Muskoxen in the Arctic Refuge | USFWS
Muskoxen in the Arctic Refuge | USFWS

How the Refuge Association is Working to Protect the Arctic Refuge

Since our establishment in 1975, we have been the only organization working solely to support, protect, and enhance the National Wildlife Refuge System. We know refuges better than anyone else.

We are a trusted resource for lawmakers when it comes to Refuge System issues, and our successful advocacy record speaks to our effectiveness on Capitol Hill. We partner with Friends groups in all 50 states, volunteers across the Refuge System, private businesses, and other conservation groups to make the most impact we can.

The threat to the Arctic Refuge is more real than it has ever been. We have to act now, and we have to act together, if we are to protect it. The Arctic Refuge belongs to all Americans, and this shared resource must not be irreversibly tarnished so that a select few can earn a quick profit.

The Refuge Association has been fighting to defend the Arctic Refuge for decades – and we have no intention of backing down now.

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