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Why the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Should Be Left Alone

Story by Leslie Hittmeier

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a spring evening in the Alaskan Arctic and ski mountaineers, Kit DesLauriers, Hilaree Nelson, and Chris Figenshau, are standing on top of the third highest peak in the Brooks Range. Mount Chamberlin stands alone, almost like a volcano, in the northwestern part of the 19.6 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In all its millions of acres, there are no roads, no bridges, no trails, and no buildings. It is an immense ecosystem that has been left alone since the beginning of time. From Fairbanks it took four hours of flying in a 1953 de Havilland Beaver named Pumpkin, and a lot of walking with over 6,000 feet of elevation gain to get here. Along the way, they crossed the tracks of a grizzly, a wolf, and a mother polar bear with her cub. Now, the crew plans on skiing a snow-covered ramp nestled between blue ice on the South Face. But first, they take in the view.

The sun is low in the sky and clouds undulate by, making for warm, soft, light mixed with dark shadows. A gyrfalcon surfs the thermals above them and the mountain they are standing on drops dramatically down to the river valleys that run north to the Beaufort Sea. DesLauriers, Nelson, and Figenshau revel in a silence that doesn’t exist anywhere else on a summit in the middle of the wildest place in America.

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They came to the Arctic Refuge on an expedition funded by The North Face so that they could come back with a story to tell. “If we don’t have anyone who understands what it is like to be there – that is not a blank white sheet of paper or lifeless landscape— how would people know how important it is to protect?” DesLauriers says.

She says this because after almost four decades of protection, an area of the Arctic Refuge is now (as of December, 2017) open to oil and gas exploration and drilling. The Refuge is rich in natural resources and money from this kind of development is a large source of income in Alaska. According to the Alaska Oil and Gas Association the state’s petroleum revenues have averaged over 85 percent since 1977 and the industry supports a third of all jobs in the state. 

Since the legislation was passed last year, those in favor have been pushing fast to develop the refuge. Two Alaska Native corporations and a small oil services firm have joined forces to apply for a lease to do extensive seismic work next winter. Their application is currently being reviewed by the Alaska office of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.

In the meantime, the BLM is in the midst of a 60-day public scoping period to assist in preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS). Public comments on scoping issues for the proposed Leasing EIS will be accepted through June 19.

In the early 1950s, a group of bio-scientists and conservationists including George Collins, Lowell Sumner, and Olaus and Margaret (Mardy) Murie, began advocating for an ecosystem-sized protected area in Alaska. In 1960, they got it. The Secretary of Interior in the Eisenhower administration, Fred E. Seaton, signed a Public Land Order 2214 that set aside the 8.9 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Range. This legislation states its purpose “of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values" in the first paragraph.

At this time, Alaska was as wild as ever. There were no major roads, no industrial development, and a lot of land. People were divided about just how the land should be divvied up. President Jimmy Carter said at a 2010 symposium held to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Arctic Refuge that, “It was a constant struggle between people who wanted a small amount of wilderness area, some national parks and a lot of state parks, land to go to the Natives, land to be set aside for hunting and fishing, land to be preserved, land to be made into forestry areas, and also some to go to the state for management on its own.”

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Carter knows the dispute well—he tried to do something about it during his presidency. In 1980, he signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which designated 106 million acres in Alaska to conservation, 44 million acres to the Alaska Natives, and 100 million acres to the state of Alaska. ANILCA doubled the Arctic National Wildlife Range in size, to 19.6 million acres with 8 million designated as wilderness, and changed its name to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Arctic Refuge and its new boundaries spanned 200 miles north to south from the Beaufort Sea to the Porcupine and Chandalar Rivers, and 180 miles east to west, at its greatest point, from Canada to the Sagavanirktok River drainage near the Dalton Highway.

“I have been an expedition athlete with The North Face for a long time—going on two decades—I’ve traveled all over the world,” Nelson says. “There is something so unique and special about The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s not friendly or comfortable or easy, but it’s wild and it’s massive. It’s unique and intense and unlike anywhere I’ve been. Any time in my life I’m given a chance to go there, I’m going to go.”

Section 1002 of ANILCA mandated that 1.5 million acres of coastal plain be evaluated in terms of wildlife and petroleum resources. It called for “a comprehensive and continuing inventory and assessment of the fish and wildlife resources of the coastal plain; an analysis of the impacts of oil and gas exploration, development, and production, and [the ability to] authorize exploratory activity in a manner that avoids significant adverse effects on the fish and wildlife and other resources."

Fieldwork and studies were conducted from 1982 to 1985. A final report was published in 1986 and a Legislative Environmental Impact Statement followed a year later. Scott Montgomery wrote in his four-part series in the Oil & Gas Journal that the LEIS noted three main points: 1. That the 1002 Area contained "outstanding wilderness values." 2. Oil development would result in "widespread, long-term change in habitat availability or quality" for a number of species. 3. That leasing and development should proceed, at full-scale, with efforts made to minimize any adverse impacts.

However, the price of oil was so low no companies were interested in drilling. Congress took no action.

Pamela Miller a biologist who was one of the people to help conduct these studies in the 1980s and spent most of her career in the Arctic Refuge said at the 2010 Symposium that, “The fact that I drove on this wild landscape forever changed my understanding of the limits of mitigation, stipulations, and the values of wilderness. I learned that while most of the crew felt lucky to work in the Refuge and were respectful of my profession, my experience showed there was no way that such intensive activities could take place year after year as would be required for further exploration, drilling, and oil and gas development and production, and not destroy the basic integrity of the ecosystem, its natural quiet or its beauty.”

Throughout the 1990s to now, the conflict about the 1002 Area continued—a consistent debate between those who value the biological resources above and those who value the natural resources below.

In September 2017, The GOP Senate Energy committee led by Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski proposed opening the 1002 Area for oil and gas drilling as a way to help pay for tax cuts pledged by President Trump. Murkowski said this would result in $1 billion in revenue for her state and $1 billion for the federal government over 10 years. The legislation passed three months later. It calls for at least two lease sales over the next decade in the refuge’s coastal plain and mandates that each sale must contain at least 400,000 acres. Surface development on the federal land would be limited to 2,000 acres.

Nobody really knows just how much petroleum is in the 1002 Area, but there are some good guesses. A petroleum resource assessment published in 2001 estimated that there is between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. A 1998 assessment estimated that there might be 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In 2010, on another expedition with The North Face, DesLauriers, along with Nelson and Figenshau, toured across the entire coastal plain. Glaciated peaks, the highest in the whole Brooks Range, rose straight up from the valley floor all around her. “One day while touring I felt like something was watching me,” DesLauriers says. “I put my binoculars up to my eyes and I scanned to where I felt it was coming from and a saw a big snowy owl just standing there looking at me. That’s the thing, when you are moving through this place slowly you really realize how alive the plain is. You will see arctic foxes and wolverines and so many tracks. It’s not empty.” 

The Arctic Refuge is highly biodiverse and the coastal plain is its biological heart. The Refuge supports 42 fish species, 37 land mammals, eight marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species. The 1002 Area has the largest number of polar bear dens in Alaska. Female polar bears will walk 50 miles across the plain to den at the foothills of the Brooks Range in the winter, then they make the trip back to the pack ice in the spring, often with a new cub in tow. The Washington Post reported at the beginning of June that, “77 percent of the coastal plain is designated as critical habitat for polar bears.” Polar Bears are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered species act as of 2008.)

The 1002 Area also serves as a temporary home for the Porcupine caribou herd (nearly 200,000 strong), which has its calving ground there. This herd is one of the largest migratory caribou herds in North America. The Caribou are also a source of food and culture for the Gwitch’in native people and other Alaskan natives who live in the villages along the southern part of the Refuge.

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The landscape of the 1002 Area is mostly flat tundra that lies on permafrost. After climbing a smaller peak on day just to get a good view of the plain, DesLauriers, Nelson, and Figenshau found out on their 2018 expedition that tundra is no longer covered in snow. So any infrastructure built would have long lasting affects on the land. (Many of the seismic trails created by the exploration done in the 80s are still visible today.) A common way oil and gas companies have minimized their effect on land is to build ice roads and use sleds – but DesLauriers and Nelson are saying by the looks of the coastal plain these days that just isn’t realistic.

“Drilling feels so wrong on so many levels,” DesLauriers says. “Not only to mess with this enormous plot of unaffected land but to responsibly drill would be impossible because you can’t protect the fragile landscape. There is no snow on top of the tundra anymore, so making ice roads is impossible. It’s a completely intact ecosystem. I do not believe the wild animals that live on the coastal plain and around it will tolerate that kind of development. Everything that lives up there is too sensitive.”

This issue is so difficult because there seems to be no good compromise. Those who want the refuge intact know that any drilling operation at all, even exploration for it, would compromise the integrity of the ecosystem and potentially have drastic affects on the tundra, caribou, polar bears, and everything down the line. 

And, it’s fair to say that oil and gas isn’t really the way to the future. According to an article published in The Guardian in 2013, every science academy in the world accepts that global warming is real and that we need to limit the global temperature increase to -2 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of it. We also know that the amount of warming we will experience goes up in proportion to the amount of carbon that we emit.

The hardest part for me to swallow is that there is no shortage of petroleum out there right now. I guess I just wish they’d go somewhere else, because there are other options. I had a long chat with my uncle who is an energy expert in Houston, Texas. He told me that while we work to make renewables economical, we have to keep using natural resources. I get that. He said that oil and gas companies know that renewables are coming and that natural resources are just an economic bridge to them. I get that, too. And I understand that everything we do requires energy and using renewables for energy right now is comparable to using a fax machine back in 1980 when it cost $20,000.

But at the same time, in Hilaree Nelson’s words, “Can’t we just leave one place in the United States of America that we don’t fuck up?”

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Photos/Video provided by Chris Figenshau/Hilaree Nelson/ The North Face

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