A new future for the National Wildlife Refuge System

The National Wildlife Refuge System is one of the crowning conservation achievements of America.

The 150 million plus acres are home to thousands of species of birds, fish, and wildlife – nearly 21 million acres of these incredible landscapes are permanently protected from degradation and destruction in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently held an open comment period  on their vision for the future of the National Wildlife Refuge System  – more than 9,000 supporters of The Wilderness Society made their voices heard. The Wilderness Society also submitted our recommendations for what the future should hold for America’s wildlife refuges.

Alaska is home to many of these treasured places - including the crown jewel of the Refuge System, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – and where a new vision for the National Wildlife Refuge System can make a huge difference.  Key among this vision must be the protection of Alaska’s wildlife refuges from the despoliation by voracious industries.  While caribou, migratory birds and other wildlife have been seen in the oil fields on the central Arctic, these man-made wells, roads, and pipelines are intruders in their habitat, not part of it.

On the Kenai NWR, due to the unique history of the refuge, oil and gas extraction has occurred for approximately 60 years, since before the refuge was established.   The legacy and ongoing expansion of these activities creates an impact of invisible toxic spills amidst the visible roads, buildings and wells.   More than 700 separate “contamination events” have occurred in the Kenai NWR, leaking crude oil, drilling fluids, PCBs and other toxins into what is meant to be a safe haven for birds, fish, and wildlife.  Clearly oil and gas activities should not be allowed on other refuges as they are not compatible with the purposes for which these refuges were established.

However, other Refuges in Alaska are threatened by oil and gas, roads and other industrial developments. A constant target for oil drilling, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is again under siege by politicians backed by Big Oil that want to open this treasured landscape – however, the Fish and Wildlife Service can take steps to keep the drills, roads, and pipelines out of the Arctic Refuge forever by recommending a Wilderness designation.  While this recommendation to the Secretary of the Interior won’t immediately add the needed safeguards, it does move the Arctic Refuge one step closer to being permanently protected as a wilderness area.

Protecting Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges also protects many native people and cultures of Alaska – -- part of Alaska’s landscape for thousands of years -- including traditional hunting and fishing subsistence grounds that native people rely on for food..

Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges contain some of the most sensitive and globally significant wildlife habitat in the world and are key to our nation’s ecological integrity as well as providing buffers and space for species adaptation as we face a warming climate.  Protecting these special places forever as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System is a clear and beautiful vision as well as a necessary step for the future health of our nation and globe.