What’s Going on With the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

The future of the refuge is still up in the air after a lengthy deadlock in Congress. Here’s what to know about the current state of affairs.

At 68 degrees north, where the Alaskan bush gives way to sweeping panoramas, rests the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the “crown jewel” of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System. Spanning 19 million acres—an area the size of South Carolina—its coastal plains, bays and lagoons, snowy peaks, and endless tundra comprise one of the largest intact habitats on Earth.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1960 under President Eisenhower, but it’s commanded the spotlight in more recent years. In January 2015, the Obama Administration unveiled a proposal to set aside more than 12 million acres of the refuge as “wilderness”—a legal distinction that would strengthen protections in the region and officially close off key habitats to oil and gas exploration.

The plan finally made its way to Congress this February, and has been marooned in the chambers ever since. But impassioned conservation groups, such as Audubon Alaska, are confident that a designation is the right move—well worth the wait and the effort.

Why is the proposal contentious?

For over 50 years, the Arctic Refuge has been at the center of an ongoing debate over the validity of energy leases on public lands. Geological surveys show that the refuge holds an estimated 8 billion barrels of oil. Some see this untapped wealth as insurance against a national energy crisis, while others view Obama’s unflinching proposal as a clamp on Alaska’s economic welfare, which relies heavily on oil production.

Those who want to protect the refuge say its habitats, which are already vulnerable to climate change, are too ecologically important to risk fragmentation and damage from development. The region is home to over 200 bird species, including the American Golden Plover, Snow Goose, and Spectacled Eider, and 45 mammal species, such as muskox, walrus, polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, and 120,000 caribou that migrate across the landscape each year. An insurgence by the fossil fuel industry could drive habitat loss, disturb sensitive species, and bring the threat of pollution and oil spills in its wake.

This longstanding disagreement has resulted in a years-long political stalemate, with previous attempts to change the law being blocked by opposing parties.

But isn’t the refuge already protected?

Much of the 19-million-acre landscape is already covered by a wilderness designation—the highest level of federal environmental protection. This closes off chunks of habitat to developments like roads and buildings, motorized vehicles, and any commercial enterprises such as oil and gas drilling. Under the new proposal, however, the wilderness ruling would be extended to additional key areas around the refuge. These include the coastal plain, an ecologically important area in the northeast corner of the refuge. While the plain isn’t currently open to drilling, that could change. An existing loophole allows Congress to open it up to oil and gas companies at any time. A new designation, however, would place these at-risk areas out of harm’s way, once and for all. These potential upgrades may seem subtle, but they’re important to those who want the refuge to remain untouched. “Since it’s a wildlife refuge already, it’s not as if there’s oil and gas going in today,” says Susan Culliney, policy associate at Audubon Alaska. “This is much more about saying, ‘let’s just stay out.’”

What’s special about the coastal plain?

The million-acre landform is the lynchpin in this struggle, Culliney says. “People call it the biological heart of the refuge. It’s also the place where there is the [most] potential for oil, so it’s where the two interests overlap.”

Annually, millions of migratory birds fly to the coastal plain to nest and feed on its rich summer bounty of insects and plants. Species have been recorded there from all 50 U.S. states, showing just how critical it is to the health of North American avians as a whole. The plain also contains important denning habitat for polar bears, and is key for herds of porcupine caribou, which migrate there to rear their offspring before returning to the Alaskan and Canadian mainland. “This is the place where they have gone for thousands of years to give birth to their young,” says Lorraine Netro, a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation woman and leader in her community of Old Crow, Yukon, which is located just across the border in Canada. “[The plain] is called ‘the sacred place where life begins.’” The Gwichin people subsist largely on caribou hunting; any drilling that interrupts the mammals’ migration and breeding patterns could have major ramifications on their livelihoods, Netro explains. “For that reason, it’s a human rights issue,” she says.

So what happens next?

The previous Congressional vote in February stood at 176 yeas, 227 nays. To reach the floor for another round, the issue needs to gather more momentum, Culliney says. “Nobody’s saying this is definitely going to go through,” she cautions, “but given the focus on the Arctic, I think people are [feeling] more positive than they were early on in the campaign.”

Through the summer and the fall, Audubon and host of environmental groups are rallying around the issue to raise its public and political profile. Ideally, the issue will be brought to a vote again later this year, Culliney says. “This is the best shot we’ve had in three decades for Congress to grant permanent protection for the refuge.”