Protecting Our Wildest Refuge

Debbie S. Miller
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - credit Mason Cummings

Forty years ago, I saw the Porcupine Caribou herd migrating across the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – a natural spectacle so vivid it remains etched in my mind as though it happened yesterday. Experiences in America’s largest and wildest refuge stay with you forever. And the long fight to protect this extraordinary place has gone on for decades – and it continues today.

In the 1950s, the renowned wilderness advocates Olaus and Margaret Murie fell in love with this remote corner of Alaska while doing biological studies on the Sheenjek River. They, and other visionaries, educated the public about the wonders of the Arctic, the diversity of wildlife and why the region should be protected in its whole and natural state. Olaus, who served on the board of the Izaak Walton League of America, was passionate about leaving this magnificent region unscathed, untrammeled, in its wilderness state.

Support grew on a regional and national level to protect a proposed “Arctic Range.” Leading conservation and sportsmen’s organizations behind this effort included the Izaak Walton League, National Wildlife Federation, the Wildlife Management Society and the Wilderness Society.

Joe Penfold, conservation director of the League, testified in 1959 at the first congressional hearing on proposed legislation to create an Arctic Range:

“We need only mention such wildlife species as the eastern elk, the Great Plains bison, the passenger pigeon, to illustrate resources which could have been preserved for today and for generations to come had we been foresighted….”

When the legislation stalled in Congress, the Eisenhower Administration took action. Before leaving office in 1960, President Eisenhower established the 8.9-million-acre Arctic Range by executive order for its “wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.”

In 1980, after several years of public hearings and debates, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. This monumental act set aside and protected more than 100 million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges and forests in Alaska – a staggering amount of public land, about the size of California. The Alaska Lands Act, as it is commonly called, was a tremendous gift for future generations and for the world.

Within the framework of the Alaska Lands Act, the Arctic Range was doubled in size and renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The original Arctic Range lands were designated wilderness, the highest level of protection from development, with the exception of 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain.

If we move forward wisely, future generations will have the opportunity to experience a true Arctic wilderness, with polar bears and caribou.

Under a legislative compromise in the Act, Congress mandated that the coastal plain be assessed for its oil and gas potential and its biological resource values through a five-year study. While the study was comprehensive, noting significant wildlife values and major adverse effects from oil and gas development, the Department of Interior under the first Bush Administration recommended that the coastal plain be opened for oil drilling anyway, hoping that large reserves might be discovered. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. was more dependent on foreign oil from unstable countries and there was a rallying cry to become energy independent and more secure.

The League opposed energy development, having supported the Alaska Lands Act and specifically advocated for full wilderness protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. After all, wilderness was a primary purpose for the establishment of the original Arctic Range, a precursor to the 1964 Wilderness Act.

For decades, oil companies eyed the Refuge as a potential drilling bonanza while conservationists championed a hands-off approach. Congress wrestled over drilling legislation many times. On one occasion, the Republican-controlled Senate successfully voted to open the Refuge to development only to be foiled by President Clinton through a line item budget veto. The Obama Administration recommended that nearly all of the Arctic Refuge be designated wilderness.

Then in 2017, the Trump Administration and supportive Alaska politicians inserted a provision in a tax bill that authorized oil lease sales on the coastal plain as a revenue-producing measure. This action caused a tsunami of opposition from conservation groups. Also, several major banks have refused to finance oil development in the Arctic. Legislation that would restore protections to the Arctic Refuge passed the House of Representatives in 2019. And legal challenges to the proposed lease sales were filed on many fronts. Congress and the courts will likely take up these issues in 2021.

Climate Threat to Arctic Communities

Climate change impacts create great risks for the landscapes and wildlife of the Arctic. According to a 2019 analysis by the International Arctic Research Center, Alaska is warming faster than any other state and twice as much as the global average since 1950. Glaciers are thinning several feet a year and nearly all are retreating. The depth of annual permafrost thawing has increased by a foot compared to a decade ago. Wildfires are more intense and widespread.

Polar bears - credit USFWS

Warmer sea and air temperatures are reducing the sea ice habitat that polar bears depend on. That’s making the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge more important as a place for polar bears to raise their cubs. But that, in turn, is leaving polar bears more vulnerable to disturbances associated with proposed oil development on the plain.

Is it too late to save these iconic animals? According to Dr. Steven Amstrup, a senior scientist with Polar Bears International, if the Arctic continues to warm at the current rate, two-thirds of polar bears could disappear within this century. Yet, he is still hopeful if we act now.

“We have the power to stop human-caused climate change and save the arctic ecosystem by greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

The League, along with 97 percent of the world’s scientists, support what Dr. Amstrup has long recognized. In the League’s 2019 resolution to protect the Arctic Refuge, climate change is addressed with certainty:

“… at a time when this country and the world is working to lessen and eliminate the use of fossil fuels to mitigate a climate crisis and move to clean, renewable energy sources to preserve a livable and healthy planet, planning to devastate and destroy one of our last premier wildlife refuges is a major mistake.”

The science is clear. We just need the political willpower and leadership to restore full protections to the Arctic Refuge, to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to invest in a clean energy future. If we move forward wisely, future generations will have the opportunity to experience a true Arctic wilderness, with polar bears and caribou – and I guarantee they will remember those moments for the rest of their lives.

This article was excerpted from “Outdoor America” 2021 issue #1. Want more articles like this? Join the League and get four issues of our award-winning magazine every year.

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Debbie S. Miller has explored Alaska for 45 years and is a co-founder of the Alaska Wilderness League, She is the author of books about the Arctic, including “Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” (Braided River, 2011). Visit

Top photo: Hulahula Valley in the Arctic Refuge, by Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society.