The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is remote and roadless, and few people have the opportunity to visit. Even so, for decades Americans have stood up to block oil development in the refuge and its coastal plain, the pond-riddled tundra along Alaska’s northeastern coast that is critical for caribou, nesting shorebirds and geese, polar bears, and countless other species.
Today, the refuge faces its biggest threat yet, as Alaskan representatives, supported by the Trump administration and members of Congress, move to drill for oil in this pristine place. Yet again, Americans are being asked to stand up and fight for a place they’ve never seen.
“I’ve spent years talking about the Arctic Refuge all over the country, and people care so deeply knowing that these wild places exist even if they will never visit them themselves,” says Stan Senner, vice president of bird conservation for Audubon’s Pacific Flyway. “We should never underestimate how important that is to our psyches, whether it’s psychological or spiritual. We want our children and grandchildren to have the chance not only to experience these places but to make their own decisions about what’s the best thing to do with them.”
Among those lucky enough to have visited the refuge are scientists who have spent extensive time exploring its wildlands and studying the coastal plain. I spoke with seven of these scientists, all of whom have signed a letter with 30 other colleagues to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Natural Resources Committee, urging her to consider its priceless qualities—its isolation, its wildlife, and its profound beauty—and not just its short-term economic potential.
Here’s why, in their words, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should not be developed.
John Schoen, wildlife biologist, retired from Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Audubon Alaska: It’s vast. It’s probably one of the most significant wilderness areas left in the United States, if not North America. It functions ecologically much like it did hundreds of years ago.
Rosa Meehan, wildlife biologist, retired from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska: It’s where the mountains come close to the sea, so you have this compression of different landscapes coming together: mountains, foothills, a little bit of coastal plain, and then you have lagoons, and barrier islands. It provides a tremendous landscape-diversity, and it’s a travel corridor for the caribou, which are compressed into that area.
Jeff Fair, field biologist and author of Arctic Wings: In 2005, I did a month-long stint in the 1002 area [which is targeted for oil development]. You could not walk up there without scaring up birds from their nests. It was like a sponge of sandpipers. There were ducks and geese and loons and quite a few other species. I went back in September because I wanted to be there for the migration outward. I saw it, I heard thousands of White-fronted Geese cackling. It sounded like a bunch of schoolgirls laughing. Thousands of them one day, and the next day the grass is empty. The winds had changed and they all left. I didn’t get to see the Snow Geese, but I know that Snow Geese from Canada fly right onto that coastal plain to feed and power up for their long flight for winter migration.
Schoen: The coastal plain is a very narrow belt of land compared to Prudhoe Bay and the area to the west. From the Arctic Ocean to the foothills of the Brooks Range is 15 to 40 miles wide. Compare that to Prudhoe Bay, where the big oil development is today: That belt of land from the coast to the Brooks Range is between 100 to 150 miles wide. This is a real key point. The compression of habitat on the east side near the Canadian border, which is where the Arctic Refuge is—you get caribou, you get migratory birds, you have grizzly bears and wolves and polar bears. If you overlay that narrow band of land with oil development, infrastructure of airfields and gravel roads and pipelines and pump stations, there really isn’t any place for the animals to go.
Meehan: I started looking at oil and gas development in Prudhoe Bay when there were five wellpads. I’ve watched it develop over the past 30 or 40 years, till now there are hundreds [of wellpads] and it covers this phenomenal amount of area. Having an oilfield in place changes the landscape. The various structures that tie the wellpads together can act as barriers and diversions for animals and birds.
Steve Zack, conservation scientist, retired from the Wildlife Conservation Society: Development brings increasing numbers of nest predators. Arctic fox use the structures for denning their young, and they are the most important predator of bird eggs in the Arctic. All birds that breed in the Arctic by definition breed on the ground in a scrape because there are no vertical structures. That makes them very vulnerable to fox, and other predators like ravens, which don’t have any other places to breed in the Arctic. They too are very effective nest predators. That leads to decreased nesting success for the birds.
It’s a big planet with a lot of troubles for migratory birds. They don’t escape troubles by migrating; they encounter other ones in different places. The Arctic is the only place these species breed. If you start to affect that last refuge for them, that could have cascading effects on population numbers. The Arctic isn’t an isolated place; it’s a really connected place because of the movements of birds and mammals from all over the planet. Developing their nursery or breeding grounds will have connected and dramatic effects elsewhere.
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Schoen: The porcupine caribou herd today numbers 197,000 animals, one of the largest herds now in Alaska. In most summers, in late May or early June, that’s when the caribou give birth, and in most years they do that in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. In the past 30 years they’ve calved maybe three times in Canada, and when they do, the mortality of calves is higher. The Arctic Refuge is where the nutritional quality of their food is the highest.
Martha Raynolds, Arctic plant ecologist, University of Alaska Fairbanks: The plants on the coastal plain are what draw the caribou there to calve. It’s the tundra community there that flowers early, provides food. They eat lichen. They eat moss. They eat the various flowering plants, the poppies and other flowers that pop up in the spring. There’s a direct link there between the health of the landscape and the health of the caribou, and all the other critters that live up there.
Meehan: When you have the caribou moving through, all the predators go with them. Bears concentrate there. Wolves follow the caribou. There’s a seasonal movement of animals through there that’s tremendous, and it’s because of the landscape.
Schoen: In ecology we learn that nothing exists in isolation. Caribou depend upon the lichens in the wintertime and the cottongrass in the summer. When caribou die or are killed, wolves or grizzly bears have first pickings. After they have at it, the wolverines scavenge the carcasses, and all of the smaller organisms get in and chew on the bones and the nutrients left behind. You have these interconnections. It’s the interconnections and dependencies of different creatures that we forget about.
Raynolds: At Prudhoe Bay, there are no lichens. The mosses are different. It’s not something that’s obvious looking at the land, but the plant communities have changed. Only the hardy ones survive. Even in the places between the pipelines and the roads and the drills. At a very fundamental level it causes changes that last for hundreds or thousands of years.
Schoen: Research by the state of Alaska and the University of Alaska looked at populations of the central arctic herd [which calves at Prudhoe Bay]. The females and calves were displaced by roads and pipelines, and as the oilfield infrastructure increased, the caribou that were displaced had lower birth weights and higher mortality than the portion of the herd that didn’t have oilfield infrastructure. The scientific evidence is very clear that an oilfield development like in Prudhoe Bay moved to the Arctic Refuge would have adverse impacts on caribou.
Dave Cline, wildlife conservationist, retired from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon Alaska: The outstanding other interest involved here is that of the Gwich’in native people. They often call themselves “the caribou people” because they rely primarily on wild caribou for a major part of their sustenance, going back for thousands of years. Their cultural survival and self-respect is at stake because of their close ties to the porcupine caribou herd. It’s not just a wildlife or bird issue; it’s a people issue including this very important minority group in America.
On Climate Change and Polar Bears
Zack: The Arctic is changing more quickly than any other landscape on the planet because of climate change. More development will further stress Arctic wildlife in that context. Our last place of truly Arctic conditions is moving away from such conditions into more boreal-like climates, bringing boreal animals further north and crowding out animals that are truly Arctic-only: that huge assemblage of migratory birds that nest there in the winter, caribou herds, musk ox, polar bears obviously. You add more development, you add more stress to a system in one of the most beautifully singular places on the planet.
Schoen: In the last 30 years, as the sea ice has moved northward, polar bears are increasingly denning on land. And in the last 10 years, that’s even accelerated. The most important onshore denning area in Alaska, based on numbers of dens, is the Arctic Refuge coastal plain.
Meehan: The southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears is already showing a lot of population stress. The young are not surviving. The females are able to reproduce, but the bears aren’t making it to two or three years old, so there are not new bears entering the population. Then, if you put an oilfield on top of where the bears are increasingly coming to shore to den, there are going to be increased problems. You can’t get away from that. There will be increasing conflicts and they will be increasingly difficult to manage.
On What Can't Be Measured
Daniel Taylor, wildlife biologist, retired from Audubon California: The Arctic Refuge is a place far away from the normal hustle of life. It is timeless and vast. When you are there you feel more connected to the rhythms of life that go well beyond our daily routine. Great processions of caribou tracing steps they have followed for millennia. Shorebirds in their finest breeding plumage on their nests raising the next generation of young, having flown thousands of miles to be in this place at this time. Predators pursuing prey during the short brief summer in order to sustain their lives and kind. Plants and animals going about the business of survival in a place of remarkable beauty and aloneness. We need these places. Even if I never visit again, my life is richer every day knowing that it exists as it was and should continue to be.
Fair: You have that feeling of being out in the wide open with nothing else around you. You have the ultimate sea to your north, the Beaufort Sea, and the mountains on the horizon to the south. It’s hard to explain, but it reminds you that you’re still on the cusp of creation. It’s such a belittling feeling, with that much expanse around you, and that much beauty, and you standing there in the middle of it while performing your science.
On the Trade-off
Fair: And what do we get? A few years of oil that we’re trying to wean ourselves off anyway. It’s just ridiculous. It’s not for the nation; we’re going to sell it overseas anyway. It’s for a few more years of getting the pipeline fuller and making more money on it. That’s all it is. It’s all money. The experience that you have up there is worth so much more than a bunch of financiers getting richer because of this.
Cline: This is not new. It’s a clash of value systems that we’re seeing. It’s going to happen over and over again as long as there’s opportunity for short-term profit-making in a wild place like this. It’s a clear choice between that and providing permanent protection to fast-disappearing wilderness for the joy and wonder of this and future generations.
Interviews edited and condensed for clarity.