The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain is one of the world’s most extraordinary intact wilderness and wildlife areas by any measure of ecological value or wilderness character. These internationally unique wild natural values have been officially documented and reported through decades of detailed studies and reported by those of us who have been privileged to travel there and continue to bear witness to the significance of those values. As an undisturbed ecosystem, it is the benchmark to measure the health of the planet.
Imagine a place so vast and wild that you see something new every time you visit it and yet each time you see unique ecological patterns shaped by millennia of repeated annual cycles on a grand scale as old as time. A place where bands of white Dall sheep peer down on you from the cliffs above as you float north through the Brooks Range toward the coastal plain; where millions of birds come from all over the world to sing, feed, breed and fledge their young; and where tens of thousands of caribou move back and forth across the coastal plain between the Beaufort Sea and the Brooks Range like a sea of life to feed, give birth, and avoid predators and mosquitoes. A place where wolves and grizzly bears chase caribou, where Grizzly bears boldly come into your camp; where you can see 88 muskoxen in the course of one day as you float down the Canning River; and where polar bears are to den and have their cubs in winter and line the gravel crest of Icy Reef on the coast with their post-hole tracks you can follow in summer for miles and miles. A place where a large lone wolf trots past your rest stop along the Hulahula River under the pale yellow light of a late summer evening briefly pausing to look you over. Having personally witnessed all of that in this great wilderness is an unforgettable privilege, in a place so vibrant that wildness runs through it like the blood of life. It is the gold standard for all Wilderness Areas, a magical place.
Congress passed the landmark Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act PL 96-487 (ANILCA) in 1980, proscribing the inter-related purposes of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in law to protect it as follows:
ANILCA §303. (2)(B) The purposes for which the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is established and shall be managed include–
(i) to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity including, but not limited to, the Porcupine caribou herd (including participation in coordinated ecological studies and management of this herd and the Western Arctic caribou herd), polar bears, grizzly bears muskox, Dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, snow geese, peregrine falcons and other migratory birds and Arctic char and grayling;
(ii) to fulfill the international treaty obligations of the United States with respect to fish and wildlife and their habitats;
(iii) to provide, in a manner consistent with the purposes set forth in subparagraphs (i) and (ii), the opportunity for continued subsistence uses by local residents; and
(iv) to ensure, to the maximum extent practicable and in a manner consistent with the purposes set forth in paragraph (i), water quality and necessary water quantity within the refuge.
Internationally significant populations of wildlife species are protected by those ANILCA purposes for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and international treaties rely on the coastal plain for critical habitat and food that would be irreparably harmed by oil and gas development there, as would critical water resources.
The 200,000 animal Porcupine Caribou Herd (PCH) annually migrates from Canada onto the coastal plain and fully occupies its entire area moving back and forth across the plain like a giant wave of life for calving, replenishing nutrition, predator avoidance, and insect relief.
Polar bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and 77% of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain is designated polar bear Critical Habitat. The Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears has lost about half its population since 1980, about one third of these bears increasingly depend on the coastal plain to den and give birth to their cubs as sea ice retreats, and this area of the Arctic Refuge is now one of the world’s largest land based polar bear denning sites.
Over 200 species of birds from every US state and six continents nest on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain which provides essential nesting, foraging, and migratory stopover for millions of birds each year.
The relatively narrow coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge cannot be developed without destroying those ecological and wilderness values. The density and intensity of wildlife use there is too great and geographically concentrated to absorb any industrial development. The vast network of seismic survey lines, hundreds of miles of permanent roads and pipelines, airstrips, and associated infrastructure that would be brought by development would be like a coarsely woven giant fish-net thrown across the coastal plain ensnaring that wildlife and displacing it from its historic migrations and natural patterns of use. One has to look no farther than west to Prudhoe Bay to see what the result would be – a densely developed industrial zone visible from space where climate change is already taking its toll with rising temperatures, melting permafrost, collapsing oil wells, and shorter frozen ground seasons for mechanized over tundra access.
By contrast, a national investment in an energy policy that emphasizes Conservation, Alternatives, Renewables, and Efficiencies to reduce our dependence on all oil would be environmentally, economically, and nationally more secure and would eliminate the need to sacrifice this and other ecological treasures for whatever oil may or may not be there. – Call it the C.A.R.E. energy policy. We cannot survive if we continue to pursue energy policies that would have us burn all of earth’s hydrocarbons. In the face of rapidly increasing impacts of climate change can we afford not to make that investment in a C.A.R.E energy policy?
The human rights of indigenous Native Athabascan Gwich’in Indians living in villages south and east of the Brooks Range in Alaska and Canada would be compromised and their reliance on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for their cultural and traditional subsistence way of life would be destroyed by oil and gas development on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain. That would be an environmental racial injustice of monumental proportions.
As a non-Native, I cannot speak for the Gwich’in, but from visiting their villages and working with them I can make value-based observations about their needs and human rights. They are indigenous Natives who were here first and have a legal right to exist and prosper in their cultural and traditional way of life as they have for millennia.
Examining the purposes of ANILCA and the Arctic Refuge and the history of Native law shows that Congress has guaranteed those rights. Any claims that have been made by proponents of oil and gas development that the Gwich’in must adapt in the face of our perceived need for oil are condescending and unfounded. To the Gwich’in, the Arctic Refuge coastal plain is “the sacred place where life begins.” Must we destroy them and their culture that others might have the last drop of oil? No. Morally, that cannot be justified. We are the ones who must adapt.
Oil and gas development cannot take place on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain without contravening the legal purposes of the Arctic Refuge established by Congress under ANILCA and cannot be undertaken there without destroying the wildlife and wilderness values protected in law causing irreparable harm to the subsistence communities that rely on those values. No amount of analysis can honestly escape the devastating realities of what that development would do to the internationally significant wildlife values and subsistence communities that rely on that extraordinary wilderness. Whatever oil and gas may or may not be there, we should leave it there.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain is wild and free – let it be.
Allen Smith has 45 years of professional Alaska wilderness conservation experience through leadership roles at The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, US Department of Justice and Sierra Club. He and Carol, his wife, live in Olympia.