President Trump and members of Congress are pressing to open the Arctic Refuge's pristine wildlands to oil and gas drilling.
The threat to the Arctic Refuge is greater than ever
For years, conservationists have held the line against efforts to open the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil development. The Arctic Refuge is one of America's largest intact ecosystems and an incredibly wild frontier that gives life to an amazing assortment of animals and birds, some not found in other parts of our nation, such as the polar bear and musk ox. But with Donald Trump’s election and a Republican-controlled Congress, the oil industry and its allies in Washington, D.C., see their chance to finally get oil infrastructure into this irreplaceable wild place.
Trump's proposed budget for 2018 includes language to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling in order to meet his fossil fuel agenda. If that budget isn't approved, Alaska’s congressional delegation also believes they will be able to pass legislation in Congress to open the Arctic Refuge. And of course, they will have no problem getting that legislation signed by the president. The threat to the Arctic Refuge is greater than ever.
Why Americans should care about this far-away place
The Arctic Refuge, spreading over the northern coast of Alaska, is America's largest wildlife refuge. It is one of the wildest places left in the United States as well as one of the finest examples of wilderness left on Earth. Teeming with wildlife, the Arctic Refuge is often referred to as America's Serengeti and the crown jewel of our refuge system.
Due to its intact ecosystem, one that has been unaffected by human activity, the refuge is home to an epic array of animals. This includes all three North American bear species--polar, brown (grizzly) and black bears, as well as a wolves, Arctic fox, musk oxen, dall sheep and the vast Porcupine Caribou Herd. The refuge also gives life to another 200 species of birds that migrate to six continents and all 50 states.
Its wilderness values are timeless and irreplaceable. It is so wild that in 2015, President Barack Obama recommended that the refuge's protections be further expanded through a wilderness designation.
While most Americans will likely never visit the Arctic Refuge, it is a part of our natural heritage, one of our nation's last wild frontiers.
No price tag can be placed on the value of knowing there are still wild places in our nation where animals roam freely and nature, not humans, rules the land.
Video: See what there is to protect in the Arctic Refuge
The Arctic Refuge as a human rights issue
For thousands of years, the Gwich'in people have relied on the Arctic caribou to sustain them. As the birthing ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the coastal plain—which lies between the stunning Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean, is not only the biological heart of the refuge, but it's critical to native communities. Local villages depend on the caribou and other species to sustain their communities and cultures. For the Gwich’in people, preservation of the Arctic Refuge is a matter of human rights.
Sprawling infrastructure, damaged habitats
Despite its beauty and wilderness values—and its importance to Alaska Native communities—pro-drilling members of Congress would like to sell off the Arctic Refuge to corporate interests.
Oil production in the Arctic Refuge would involve sprawling infrastructure for an industry with a dismal record on safety and the environment. Oil companies claim they would need only 2,000 acres, but this is intentionally misleading because drilling sites likely would be scattered across the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, greatly magnifying the industrial footprint.
The industrial infrastructure would likely disrupt caribou travel patterns movement and threaten their birthing ground. Oil spills and other pollution would threaten the clean air and water on which wildlife and human communities depend.
The Wilderness Society has fought for decades to protect this special place from oil development, especially the Arctic coastal plain. For more than thirty years we have held the line against campaigns by the oil and gas industry. But more than ever we need American's to get involved in defending this precious place.
Industrialization in Alaska's Arctic
Oil and gas development has already scarred Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay area—to the west of the Arctic Refuge—with drilling pads, pipelines and gravel roads.
The footprint of drilling continues to spread as the oil and gas industry strives to extract every last possible barrel of oil.
The once wild character of the Prudhoe Bay area remains forever changed, but the Arctic Refuge can be saved. We do not have to sacrifice this magnificent wild place for a limited amount of oil.
Unlike other parts of Alaska's North Slope, the Arctic Refuge has remained unspoiled. Opening its lands to the sights, sounds and smells of industrial development would forever change its natural character. Here are just a few of the negative effects:
- Lands and waters: Both would be at risk for spills of oil and toxic industrial chemicals.
- Wildlife: Migration, calving and denning patterns of caribou, bears and other wildlife would be disrupted by roads, infrastructure and industrial sounds.
- Native communities: The well being of Alaska Native communities would be diminished as hunting for caribou and other sources of food would become more difficult.
- Ecosystems: The coastal plain's fragile tundra ecosystem would suffer lasting harm from oil trucks and oil infrastructure.
- Climate change: Alaska's Arctic is already experiencing severe impacts from climate change. Drilling would add even more pollutants into the atmosphere, exacerbating the problems.
- An unspoiled frontier: The overall wild beauty of this last wild frontier would be sullied by pollution and the sights and sounds of industrial oil drilling.
Image (right): Will the Arctic Refuge be spared from the same fate as nearby Prudhoe Bay. Image: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Building momentum for Arctic protections
The only thing that will truly offer lasting protections for the Arctic Refuge is a wilderness designation, America's highest form of land protection. Only Congress can make such a designation.
In 2015, our supporters sent more than 600,000 public comments in support of a wilderness designation for the refuge, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended the coastal plain and other parts of the refuge be designated as wilderness. President Obama even began urging Congress to act. In late 2015, the U.S. Senate saw a record number of its members co-sponsor an Arctic Refuge wilderness bill, which was a companion bill to the House version that had been introduced months earlier. While these bills did not get to a final vote, the support for them shows that there are members of Congress willing to fight for the Arctic Refuge. That is why it's critical that we build a groundswell of support for Congress to see.
The Arctic Refuge is known for its thundering migrations of the Porcupine Caribou herd, which has 180,000 members. Image by Peter Mather.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the only places in America where polar bears live. Image by Hugh Rose.
Roads, infrastructure and noise could interfere with important travel patterns for caribou in the Arctic Refuge. Image by Peter Mather