Our New Year’s Resolution: Protect The Arctic Refuge

Mollie Beattie, the first female director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service once said, “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.”

We Have Only Begun to Fight

Fittingly, the designated wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is named for her and today her words ring especially true watching President Trump and the Alaska delegation take a Rose Garden victory lap. It is hard to understand, in any rational way, how any politician could vote to drill this pristine wildlife refuge at a time when the U.S. has become the world’s largest oil producer and is exporting record amounts of oil overseas. Why, with oil prices relatively low, and when the impacts of climate change are challenging us to transition away from fossil fuels. But this is not a rational political era.

What we do know is that the Arctic Refuge means a lot to so many – the overwhelming majority of Americans have consistently opposed opening its “biological heart” – the Coastal Plain – to development. It provides the calving grounds for the 200,000-strong Porcupine Caribou Herd, denning area for America’s Beaufort Sea population of polar bears, and nesting and staging grounds for millions of migratory birds.

Polar bears along the coast of the Beaufort Sea, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Steven Kazlowskit / www.lefteyepro.com)

For those who have hiked, camped, paddled or otherwise experienced our nation’s largest and wildest refuge firsthand then you know it offers a wilderness experience not duplicated elsewhere. For me, being in the Refuge has also been extraordinarily spiritual in a way that is hard to express, certainly not in the way lawmakers in D.C. can easily comprehend. For those who haven’t been there but who believe, as Mardy Murie once said, “that something will have gone out of us as a people if we let these last wildernesses go by,” the Arctic Refuge has symbolized national restraint. After all, we have rejected drilling in this remote northeastern corner of Alaska for more than half a century – including in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, the Exxon Valdez, the Persian Gulf War and after 9/11.

Overlooking the Coastal Plain, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Mladen Mates / Alaska Wilderness League)

And that is why I can say now with great confidence that this fight is not even close to over. We will protect the birthplace of the Porcupine Caribou. We will protect the sacred lands of the Gwich’in people. And we pledge to hold members of Congress accountable for including Arctic Refuge as a supposed “pay for” for an infinitesimal fraction of the 1.5 trillion deficit exploding tax package,

Winning the Marathon, Not the Sprint

This is not a short race or one act play. The process of permitting and conducting seismic testing, holding lease sales, conducting exploratory drilling and moving on to development can take years under normal circumstances and even longer in harsh Arctic conditions. Add to that the comparatively lower global energy prices and the fact that less expensive alternatives for the industry exist, and the economics of drilling in the Arctic Refuge are questionable at best. In short, the process by which the Trump administration can now advance drilling will play out not over weeks and months, but years, giving us the opportunity to defend the Refuge on multiple fronts.

Arctic terns are among the many migratory birds that nest and raise their young on the Coastal Plain. (Florian Schulz / www. florianschulz.org)

On the legal side, we expect Interior may propose new regulations for seismic exploration, giving the public an early opportunity to speak directly to this administration on Refuge drilling. We will also be bird-dogging Interior at every other step in the administrative process, and we will pursue legal action whenever appropriate.

On the ground, oil companies that may seek to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will now have to consider the impact on their reputations as well as backlash from shareholders and investors. They will need to evaluate the unfavorable economics and geology that have already led many in the industry to question the expense and viability of Arctic Refuge drilling. And they will have to account for the fact that there are millions of consumers prepared to abandon companies that harm pristine environments or the rights of Native people.

Even as we advance legal and corporate engagement efforts, we will mount an offensive to not only restore legislative protections but also strengthen them. The Arctic Refuge has long enjoyed bipartisan support. Republican Theodore Roosevelt created our National Wildlife Refuge System and it was Dwight Eisenhower, another Republican, who first protected the Refuge in 1960. Over time, we will build a much stronger base of bipartisan support for protecting the Refuge, both from the prospect of Trump leases sales and in the quest for permanent protection.

Protection for the Arctic Refuge and the Porcupine Caribou Herd has long enjoyed bipartisan support. (Mladen Mates / Alaska Wilderness League)

To paraphrase Churchill, in the fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge we shall go on to the end. We shall fight in the courts, we shall fight in the corporate boardrooms and in the halls of Congress, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the arena of public opinion, we shall defend our Refuge whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the edge of the Canning River, we shall fight on the Beaufort Sea Coast, we shall fight alongside our Gwich’in partners in defense of their way of life. We shall fight in the streets, district by district and state by state, holding politicians and industry to account. We shall never, never surrender the wildest place left in America.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd in the foothills of the Brooks Range. (Florian Schulz / www.florianschulz.org)

Join us in the Next Stage of the Fight

If you remain committed to standing with us and our partners all across the conservation movement – and to standing with the Gwich’in people – then consider signing this pledge. We are seeking 200,000 initial signers, the same as the number as the awe-inspiring Porcupine Caribou Herd that depends on the Refuge. You can also donate to the League to help power our legal and other advocacy efforts in defense of America’s last great wilderness. Together we will make sure that the final chapter of this fight is one that would make Molly Beattie and the vast majority of Americans proud.


Take the pledge to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: