10 reasons you should care about what happens to the Arctic Refuge

By Laura Bailey and Amy Ayres

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the top of Alaska is often called the crown jewel of our refuge system, but few Americans can vouch for the accuracy of that claim. Most of us don’t have a great deal of knowledge about the Arctic Refuge, and fewer still will ever set boots on its soil.

So why should the average American care about the fate of an obscure wildlife refuge so remote and unfamiliar?

We’ll give you 10 amazing reasons. But above all is the fact that the Arctic Refuge is under extreme threat this year. Both President Trump and our pro-fossil fuel Congress are scheming to open this refuge to oil and gas development with a sneaky backdoor provision to the 2018 budget. Stunningly, they are getting close to securing the deal, despite decades of bipartisan support for maintaining protections — support that has quashed every other attempt to drill in the refuge over the past 40+ years. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge needs a massive outcry from the public to keep oil-obsessed politicians from destroying this gem.

Why care about the fate the of the Arctic Refuge?

The Arctic Refuge is:

1. America’s epic outdoor adventure destination

Most visitors to the Arctic Refuge come to backpack, hunt, fish or float its rivers. Photo by Lincoln Else.

Visiting this remote refuge in northeastern Alaska is not for the faint of heart. But those rugged souls who are willing try are rewarded richly with unmatched backcountry experiences. The land is so wild that visitors must raft, backpack or charter a plane into the refuge from places like Fairbanks and Arctic Village. There are no roads or visitor centers, just vast stretches of wild alpine forests, coastal lowland plains and meandering rivers that provide once-in-a-lifetime backpacking, rafting, fishing and hunting opportunities. Sightings of muskoxen, grizzlies, herds of caribou or even polar bears feeding on the beach are common. There’s a reason the Arctic Refuge is called America’s Serengeti!

2. Home to our country’s polar bears

The Arctic Refuge is critical to polar bear denning. Photo by Gregory Camero, courtesy Share the Experience.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the only U.S. wildlife refuge where polar bears live. It provides the most important onshore denning area in all of America’s Arctic. While the bears prefer to spend most of their time on pack ice in the Arctic Ocean, land denning sites on the refuge’s northern coast are increasingly important as sea ice recedes due to climate change. Mother polar bears build their dens in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. They spend up to five months in their dens and give birth to one, two or three cubs at a time. These dens may be disrupted by vehicles, seismic testing machinery and other noise associated with oil drilling.

3. One of earth’s last unspoiled places

Image by Florian Schulz

With 19.3 million acres, the Arctic Refuge is one of the largest intact ecosystems left in the United States and even the world. While development has pushed ever deeper into our forests, prairies and deserts, the Arctic Refuge has remained untouched and unblemished, just as it was thousands of years ago. Vast stretches of intact wild lands are uninterrupted by roads, transmission lines or human built structures. Polar bears still roam, epic migrations of caribou thunder through the land and the sights of muskoxen hark back to earlier epochs in earth’s history.

4. Did we mention bears?

Image by Florian Schulz

The Arctic Refuge isn’t just home to polar bears. The refuge is one of the only places in the entire United States where you can find all three species of North American bears: polar bears; black bears and grizzly bears (also known as brown bears). Bears need loads of undeveloped room to roam and the refuge provides that for them.

5. A reindeer magnet

Caribou migrate by the thousands across the tundra in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Image by Florian Schulz.

Nearly 200,000 reindeer, aka., caribou march north over the Brooks Range to their calving range on the refuge’s coastal plain each year. The Porcupine herd is so massive that it sometimes creates a rumbling, thundering noise as it moves. One photographer who experienced it in person described it as similar to the sound effects of cattle stampedes in an old western movie. In addition to the risk of drilling in their home, caribou are also threatened by warming temperatures in the Arctic.

6. Sacred to the Caribou People

The Gwich’in people rely on the Arctic Refuge for sustenance. They consider the land to be sacred. Image by Peter Mather.

The health of the caribou is vital to the indigenous Gwich’in, who call themselves “caribou people.” About 9,000 Gwich’in live on the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and have relied on the animals for sustenance for thousands of years, using them for clothing, food and tools. “As the birthing ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the coastal plain is the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge and vitally important to the survival of the Gwich’in people,” The Wilderness Society’s Alaska regional director, Nicole Whittington-Evans, said earlier this year. “Protecting it is a matter of human rights for the Gwich’in, and saving it for future generations is in the best interest of all Americans.”

7. One of the only places to see Musk Oxen! Need we say more?

Image by Patrick Endres

The Arctic Refuge and nearby Arctic areas are the only place in the United States where this ancient species can be seen. Almost a century ago, the musk oxen had disappeared. They were reintroduced to the refuge in 1969 and have since expanded to the east and west. During the bitterly long and cold winter, many animals leave the Arctic Refuge or hibernate. But not the musk oxen. Among those who brave the cold are the “iconic musk oxen, which meander across the coastal plain in temperatures below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, using their long, skirt-like hair and thick wool to retain heat.

8. A world destination for Birds

The king eider is one of many bird species that rely on the Arctic Refuge. Image by Peter Mather.

Some 200 bird species from all 50 states and six continents spend the summer in the Arctic Refuge, where the long days result in an abundance of insects and plants to eat. Birds nest and raise young in the refuge before many migrate to other parts of the country and globe for the winter months. The refuge is located at the intersection of the four main migration routes in North America, making it a dream adventure trip for serious birders. Just a few of the bird species of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge include: King Eiders, tundra swans, snow geese, red throated loons, common mergansers, northern pintails, bald eagles, sandhill cranes and dozens of species of shorebirds, warblers, turns, owls, flycatchers, swallows, grouse and more.

9. Home to the Harry Potter Owl!

A snowy owl at South Dakota’s Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Tom Koerner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, there’s no doubt you’re familiar with the beautiful snowy owl. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is where many of these birds spend the spring and summer months. The females build their nests in the hummocks and small hills of the refuge, creating small depressions in the ground that they guard fiercely. The refuge offers these owls a summer area free of contact with human vehicles and infrastructure, which is one of the main threats to their populations . Oil drilling would bring them in dangerously close proximity to humans and machinery.

10. On the precipice of change

Image by Patrick Endres

Change may be coming to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Congress and President Trump are working hard to open the refuge to oil development this fall. If they succeed, the land will be carved up soon enough by roads, pipelines and well pads. What was once wild will become a vast industrial complex. And species that are now already struggling to adapt under climate change, such as the polar bear, may be disturbed by drilling activities, affecting the health of their population.

What’s next for the refuge

If the refuge is opened to oil and gas drilling, we will destroy one of our last truly wild places. But for what? Less than a year’s worth of oil exists under refuge lands. What’s worse is that the United States has an oversupply of oil and most of the oil out of the refuge would likely be exported overseas.

As of October, both chambers of Congress had passed provisions in their 2018 budget bills to raise funds from leasing the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas drilling. These provisions pave the way for drilling in the Arctic Refuge, but they are not final. Both houses of Congress must work to reconcile their budget versions before final passage and delivery to the president.

If the the congressional budget bill reaches the president’s desk with Arctic Refuge drilling included, the fight will be lost.

If you are sufficiently convinced that the Arctic Refuge is worth fighting for, then don’t let Congress get away with their budget plan. Pressure your Congress members to protect the Arctic Refuge and strip the drilling provision from the final budget.

The only way to stop this effort from destroying one of our nation’s greatest treasures is to stop it before it gets to the president’s desk. Tell your senators you support protections for the Arctic Refuge and want to see drilling stripped from the final budget bill: (202) 224–3121