Celebrating 50 Years of Bears, Birds, and Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Bill Meadows

Soon more than 100,000 caribou will be roaming the coastal plain, with females nursing their new-born calves. Polar bears will have left their dens and headed off to coastal waters. Millions of migratory songbirds and waterfowl will be nesting. The Gwich'in people will be fishing and hunting and building stores for the winter, as they have for thousands of years.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last great places not just in the country, but in the world. It is one of the crown jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge System, supporting thousands of types of flora and fauna. This is a special year for the Arctic Refuge — 50 years ago this stunning part of Alaska was formally identified by the Eisenhower administration as someplace special and was designated the Arctic National Wildlife Range.

Long before that, The Wilderness Society had close ties to the refuge. Renowned biologist Olaus Murie and his wife Mardy, both of whom eventually became Wilderness Society leaders, traveled through this area in 1956, when they spent weeks there documenting the wildlife and habitat of this remarkable ecosystem. After their expedition, they urged protection of this magnificent place, leading to designation by the Eisenhower administration. In 1980 the Alaska Lands Act enlarged the range and reclassified it as a national wildlife refuge.

Caribou in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ken Whitten.This week I join Senators Mark and Tom Udall and Congressman Edward Markey in celebrating the 50th birthday of this refuge. The senators are part of the legendary conservationist Udall family, which includes former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Congressman Morris Udall, both of whom played integral roles in protecting this natural treasure. Markey is the sponsor of the "Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act" to permanently protect the entire refuge as wilderness.

When I came to The Wilderness Society in 1996, the conservation community was in the ninth year of an all-hands-on-deck struggle to prevent Congress from turning the coastal plain over to the oil and gas industry. I spent a week there that first summer, hiking and exploring the area, marveling at the rugged vistas and spectacular wildlife that have made it so famous. It was clear that this was one of the wildest areas in the country, and that it needed to be permanently protected.

Over the past 15 years, it has continued to be at the center of our national debate about whether this country will protect our wildest places or exploit them for a few short years of oil and gas. The oil and gas industry insists that drilling can be carried out in an environmentally sensitive way. How credible is that as we watch a gigantic oil slick move toward the coasts of Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana? When you look at the refuge — at the wild, rugged, and pristine vistas — you have to ask yourself, if we, as a nation, cannot protect this place, what can we protect?

photo: Caribou in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ken Whitten.

A version of this article also appeared in Huffington Post.