Thank you for your interest in learning more about our public wild lands in Alaska. Stop by often to find the latest updates and information on all of the special places we work to protect outlined here. You can also find more information about the Places We Protect here.
Biden’s Proposed Actions for America’s Arctic Recognize Alaska’s Conservation, Climate Potential
On September 6, 2023, the Biden administration announced a suite of actions to protect diverse landscapes across America’s Arctic, recognizing the importance of Alaska’s public lands and waters for communities, biodiversity and our global climate. These announcements are an essential step toward addressing the threat of oil and gas development across the Arctic — a region that provides some of our nation’s last remaining opportunities to protect ecosystems at a landscape level. At a time when the reality of the climate crisis is daily news, the Biden administration is taking necessary action in the Arctic to move us toward a more sustainable future.
Honoring the connectivity across America’s Arctic, the administration simultaneously released measures for both the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Reserve). Together these efforts provide a holistic approach, creating durable protections for one of the most critical collective landscapes in the nation and the world. Both the Arctic Refuge and the Reserve received protective measures specific to the management styles and needs of the region. Share your voice to protect America's Arctic today, and please find more information below.
Together, these announcements propose stronger protections for more than 13 million acres of our public lands, providing the opportunity for the U.S. to create a lasting legacy of healthy communities, flourishing biodiversity and a resilient climate in America’s Arctic and beyond.
ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
In the Arctic Refuge, President Biden announced the cancellation of remaining oil and gas leases that were issued under Trump’s illegal leasing program, honoring the decades long fight of the Gwich’in Nation and Inupiat allies to protect their subsistence resources and cultural homelands. As a result of this action, no leases are presently held by any entity on the Coastal Plain. Simultaneously, the administration released a necessary process to address the former Trump administration’s illegal Arctic Refuge oil and gas leasing program.
President Biden signed Executive Order to protect the Arctic Refuge
On Day One of the Biden administration, the President signed an Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis. Included in this action is a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing activities on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This was incredible news, after the outgoing administration held a lease sale in their final weeks and awarded leases in their final hours.
First lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
On January 6, 2021, the Trump administration held the first ever oil and gas lease sale on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, which was a colossal failure financially as well as an attack on public lands.
Of the 1,089,053 acres of the Arctic Refuge available for auction, just over half of the acres -- 12 of 22 offered tracts -- received bids. As the first of two mandated Arctic Refuge lease sales, it should have raised $450 million in revenue for the federal treasury, and instead it raised a mere $7 million. The bids raised approximately $12 million - or an average of $27 per acre - just two dollars more than the minimum bid and half of which taxpayers will split with the state of Alaska. This is laughable compared to the $1.8 billion proponents promised would come from bonus bids on leases. Revenues from this lease sale make up less than one percent of what was promised.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), a state-owned entity, placed the winning bid on 9 tracts, Knik Arm Services on 1 tract, and Regenerate Alaska Inc. on 1 tract. This demonstrates the utter lack of industry interest in developing Arctic Refuge oil. The fact that the State of Alaska was behind the majority of the bidding is also a demonstration of how their special interests, not industry interest, has driven this lease sale process from day one.
Both Knik Arm Services and Regenerate Alaska Inc. quietly let go of the tracts that they bid on and received a full refund from the U.S. Department of the Interior. “These exits clearly demonstrate that international companies recognize what we have known all along: drilling in the Arctic Refuge is not worth the economic risk and liability that results from development on sacred lands without the consent of Indigenous Peoples,” said the Gwich'in Steering Committee (GSC) in a press statement following the news of the relinquishments. AIDEA was the sole lease holder remaining.
All action on the leases auctioned off on Jan. 6 had been suspended — first, by the Inauguration Day order issued by President Biden and subsequently, by a secretarial order that launched a new review of oil development’s potential environmental impacts due to the fact that the pre-sale environmental studies conducted by the Trump administration were flawed.
The June 1, 2021 order by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland triggered a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) process that is being administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Seismic Exploration Update: A failed rush to approve harmful activity in the Arctic Refuge
At the same time as pursuing a lease sale, very quietly the Trump Interior Department was also in a process of approving a massive new seismic testing program for nearly a half million acres of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain. The proposed program, separate from the lease sale process, would have involved hundreds of miles of trails resulting from 90,000-pound seismic vehicles traveling with bulldozer convoys towing a camp for up to 180 workers across fragile coastal plain tundra. It also threatened to displace denning polar bears.
The Trump Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ran into challenges in not completing a National Historic Preservation Act review to consider important Native sites, complicating its ability to issue a permit. And we understand that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was considering an Incidental Harassment Authorization (permit) for polar bears was told by the Interior solicitor in Alaska that it would have a hard time legally justifying moving forward given its inability to review the more than 6 million comments it received opposing seismic. (Hat tip to the youth leaders on TikTok and the Campion and Project Impact teams that helped support them.)
An Interior Department representative stated that the suspension of exploration work now in place includes any consideration of seismic surveys in the refuge’s coastal plain.
What can we do right now to engage in the fight and protect the Arctic Refuge?
The administrative actions have bought us time to keep oil drills out of the Arctic Refuge, one of our nation’s most majestic public lands. But with another lease sale mandated by the 2017 Tax Act on the horizon, this is only a temporary fix. We need to restore protections for good, and it’s up to Congress to make that happen.
We must now urge Congress to act. Legislative protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must take place to ensure this magnificent place remains intact and untouched.
Urge your representatives to co-sponsor the Arctic Refuge Protection Act
This critical legislation would restore essential protections for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while also safeguarding the subsistence rights of Arctic Indigenous peoples. A provision included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 mandated two oil and gas lease sales for the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge and despite the failed first sale, without congressional action a second sale is still mandated. Legislative action must be taken restore protections for the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.
Influencing corporations through the Corporate Campaign
A piece published in the Washington Post highlights how the fight to protect the Arctic Refuge is not only a fight for conservation, but a fight led by Indigenous voices for environmental justice. Oil development in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge threatens the way of life for the Gwich’in along with other Arctic Indigenous peoples. A divestment campaign led by the Gwich’in and others pushed all major banks in the United States and Canada to end financing for Arctic drilling, and ultimately steered away major oil companies from bidding on leases in the Arctic Refuge.
U.S. Insurer, Chubb, and 19 international insurers have joined 29 global banks—including all 6 major U.S. banks and all 5 major Canadian banks—in not supporting risky drilling projects in the Arctic Refuge. The push is on to demand that Travelers, and The Hartford join this growing list. Recent news from Insurance Business America "Revealed – how US insurers compare when it comes to exiting fossil fuel support".
NATIONAL PETROLEUM RESERVE-ALASKA (NPRA or Reserve)
On September 6, 2023, President Biden's announcment also released draft regulations aimed at strengthening and expanding protections for current and future Special Areas in the Reserve. This announcement includes strengthening protections and durability for 13 million acres of existing Special Areas, along with mechanisms for creating new Special Areas in years to come. These announced regulations are an important step in the effort to address the threat of future oil and gas development in the fragile Arctic region. A public comment process is underway and will close on November 7.
The 23 million-acre Reserve in northwest Alaska is our nation’s largest single public land unit and provides habitat for Arctic wildlife species including three caribou herds, migratory birds from across the nation and globe, and a full complement of Arctic apex predators such as grizzly bears, polar bears and wolves. Additionally, thirteen communities within and adjacent to the Western Arctic hunt, fish, gather and use Western Arctic lands for their food and culture. Oil and gas exploitation is already causing impacts to fish, wildlife, water quality, air quality and traditional uses, as well as to the changing climate and its effects on people around the world.
Comment today to advance increased protections for more than 13 million acres in the Reserve and highlight the deficiencies of Trump's illegal leasing program in the Arctic Refuge. Together we can secure landscape-level protections – where caribou roam, migratory birds soar and bears explore miles and miles of untrammeled tundra – and benefit local communities, biodiversity and our climate future. Send your message to secure maximum protections for America's Arctic, let's ensure there will be no more Willows!
The Willow Master Development Plan
The Willow Master Development Plan proposed by ConocoPhillips in the Reserve, is a massive oil and gas project, by far the largest oil extraction project proposed on federal lands today. Willow represents a looming climate threat in the Alaskan Arctic. This project was given the green light by the Trump administration, and the League joined coalition partners in immediately filing a lawsuit. In August of 2021, a federal court voided all permits issued for the project and the Biden administration is now in the process of doing a new supplemental environmental impact study due to the fact that the environmental studies done under the Trump administration were flawed.
July 2022, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) initiated a public comment period to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the proposed Willow Plan. This project would have significant impacts across the entire Western Arctic, and its significant greenhouse gas emissions will have global consequences. Climate change is warming temperatures in Arctic Alaska at 4x the rate of the rest of the planet. With each passing year, the Arctic is especially hard hit by destabilizing on-the-ground effects including sea ice melt, permafrost thaw and coastal erosion. Willow would produce an estimated 629 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years, adding 287 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Moving forward with Willow is inconsistent with what this administration has promised on climate, the environment and science-based decision making, and incompatible with President Biden’s goal of setting the nation on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050.
In addition to climate impacts, Willow is a complex and far-reaching infrastructure proposal that is likely to have far reaching impacts on the region — particularly the area around the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. Infrastructure is changing caribou migration routes. Industrial operations are resulting in constant blasting and truck traffic. And the number of people treated for respiratory illness due to flaring and increases in fine particulate matter (the main component of black carbon) has risen at a rate far outpacing population growth.
On March 13, 2023, the White House approved the massive Willow Project to drill America’s Arctic
The U.S. Department of the Interior released a Record of Decision (ROD) that moved forward ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil and gas project in the western Arctic. It was based on a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) which relied on insufficient climate analysis, ignored threats to the air, land and water, and greenlighted impacts to subsistence resources relied upon by local communities.
Durng the public comment period for Willow, an eruption of public engagement to stop the project made Willow a part of the national climate narrative. On social media alone, #StopWillow had more than 630 million views across social platforms and generated more than 5.3 million actions.
Alaska Wilderness League expressed deep disappointment with President Biden’s decision to greenlight the massive Willow project, a defining decision for his administration’s climate legacy. We were among six groups that filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the approval of Willow immediately after the announcement. We are still awaiting a final decision.
TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST
On January 25, 2023 President Biden announced a reinstatement of the Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest protecting over 9 million acres of old growth forest!
The Tongass National Forest is America’s largest national forest, encompassing the majority of the southeast Alaska panhandle. The region’s residents - 70,000 strong - generally reside in small communities that aren’t accessible by traditional roads. The region’s economy used to be dominated by logging, but as unsustainable practices of industrial scale clear cutting has been reduced, the economy of the region has transformed to one centered around tourism and fisheries. Each year more than 1 million people come to experience glaciers flowing from the mountains into the sea and iconic wildlife that thrives in one of the largest remaining temperate rainforests in the world.
The Trump administration opened 9.3 million acres of protected Tongass land to road-building and clear-cut logging. Alaska’s national forests were protected under the 2001 Roadless Rule expressly because forested wildlands persist in Alaska on a scale unknown elsewhere in the country. In addition to harboring great natural beauty and iconic wildlife, scientists believe that retaining the intact roadless areas of the Tongass is a “key element” in sustaining robust salmon runs, and they can also be key to securing a stable climate for our future.
So much hard work was done over the course of the public comment period on the proposed Alaska specific Roadless Rule exemption draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)—400,000 individual comments were submitted; 13 tribes and city governments in SE Alaska, 254 commercial fisherman in SE Alaska, more than 100 elected officials, nearly 200 businesses in Alaska and the lower-48, and 234 scientists told the U.S. Forest Service that they oppose removing Roadless Rule protections. Altogether 96% of all of the comments received were in support of keeping Roadless Rule protections.
This opinion piece published in the Hill by former U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck and Deputy Chief Jim Furnish calls for President Biden to reinstate roadless protections in the Tongass. It outlines the climate importance of an intact Tongass, which stores 8% of the carbon of the rest of the nation’s national forests. A return to old-growth logging in areas previously protected by the Roadless Rule would irreparably harm this vital carbon sink.
In early 2021, following ceaseless advocacy efforts by tribal leadership, and local and national groups, there was a key victory — the Biden Administration re-established Roadless Rule protections in the Tongass. Our voices and action can make a significant difference.
Urge your representatives to co-sponsor the Roadless Area Conservation Act
We will continue to build support for the Roadless Area Conservation Act in both the House and Senate to finally codify these protections in legislation. Nationwide, the Roadless Rule protects drinking water sources for 60 million people, thousands of at-risk species, recreational opportunities for millions, and reduces the risk of wildfires while providing a natural buffer against climate change.
Despite this critical role, the Roadless Rule has been challenged by anti-conservation presidents for decades, and former President Trump succeeded in removing its protections for the Tongass National Forest.
It's time to bring in lasting protections so this doesn't happen again! Urge your congressmembers to cosponsor the Roadless Area Conservation Act (RACA). This bill would codify the Roadless Rule on 58.5 million acres of national forest land nationwide—including within Alaska—and enshrine protections by law for robust forest ecosystems for generations to come.
Spring of 2021 finds the Arctic Ocean has been much warmer than the twenty year average, a phenomenon that scientists have linked to extreme weather events elsewhere including the freeze that swept the southern United States and caused a crisis in Texas. It is increasingly important that we take action to avoid further climate change in the Arctic, which is already warming up to three times faster than the global average. New drilling in the Arctic Ocean threatens to develop a reserve of 23.6 billion barrels of oil and 104 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This has the potential to release 15.8 billion tons of carbon if exploited – an amount equivalent to the emissions from all U.S. transportation modes for nearly a decade.
In 2015 and 2016, President Obama issued a landmark Executive Order (EO) withdrawing 98% of the Arctic Ocean from future oil drilling. President Trump immediately tried to revoke this withdrawal with his own EO, which we challenged in the courts. Judge Sharon Gleason, a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Alaska, vacated the Trump EO and ruled that a president does have the authority to withdraw acres from development but that a future president does not have the authority to reverse those withdrawals without congressional approval.
In 2020, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation relinquished its 21 leases in the Beaufort Sea, leases purchased from Shell when the oil major ended its own drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean. These leases were some of the last remaining in industry hands, so with this change, only 13 leases (covering about 58,000 acres, down from a peak of more than four million) remain in America's Arctic Ocean.