The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: An American Crown Jewel In Need of Permanent Protection

  • Doug Inkley, Ph.D.
  • Oct 15, 2015

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska’s northeast corner is often considered the crown jewel of all national wildlife refuges. President Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960 "for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values."

Despite its magnificence and importance, the Arctic Refuge is at serious risk from an oil and gas industry intent on exploiting potential oil and gas resources in the Coastal Plain, the most important wildlife habitat in the entire Arctic Refuge. At risk is the vitally-important calving and post-calving habitat for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, nearly 200,000 animals strong, the nation’s most important lands for polar bear denning, as well as breeding habitat for an abundance and diversity of songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. Oil and gas development would disturb and destroy the wilderness values and the pristine habitats where wildlife thrive, and thus harm the subsistence way of life of local indigenous people.

This report unveils the beauty, uniqueness and value of the Arctic Refuge not only for wildlife, but for all of us. It also shows the great harm, and needlessness, of turning the Arctic Refuge into an industrial complex for oil and gas development that not only isn’t needed and would harm wildlife, but would also increase climate change.

Some places are just too special to drill, and must be left in their natural state. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of those special areas. As proposed by President Obama in January, 2015, the entire Arctic Refuge, including the Coastal Plain, should be forever protected and designated as wilderness—the highest level of conservation protection on Earth—to preserve it forever for wildlife and people.

Wildlife and Habitat Impacts

Impacts of oil and gas exploration and development on the Coastal Plain would be widespread. The Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain oil may be found in as many as 40 separate and much smaller oil fields scattered across the 2,300 square mile pristine Coastal Plain. Significant effects to wildlife, including caribou and bowhead whales, are expected to worsen as industry spreads to new areas. 


The main stem of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is a four diameter pipe which crosses 800 miles of land from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. In the oil field complex there are more than a thousand miles of smaller pipelines which cross the North Slope landscape like a spider web. Oil pipelines fragment habitat, potentially affecting the movement and location of caribou and other animals. There could be hundreds of miles of pipeline within the Arctic Refuge when main pipeline and feeder pipelines are taken into consideration. Due to the permafrost and ground conditions, it is likely that new pipelines would need to be elevated, minimizing permafrost impacts but providing possible barriers to animal migrations and use of nearby habitats. A maze of above-ground pipelines would destroy wilderness values.

Seismic Activities

Oil is searched for using seismic surveys, but discoveries can only be made by drilling. Seismic exploration uses heavy vehicles that crisscross the landscape in a grid-like fashion. Industry uses more accurate three-dimensional seismic surveys with thumper trucks traveling grid lines as close as a 550 feet apart on the North Slope. The greater density of seismic lines in three-dimensional seismic surveys is even more damaging to vegetation and permafrost and create more disturbances to wintering wildlife such as denning polar bears and muskoxen. In some areas, seismic exploration reduces vegetation, increases bare areas, and decreases plant diversity, more so in tundra habitats than wetlands, although the effects are variable.

Oil Spills

The Prudhoe Bay oil fields and Trans-Alaska Pipeline section crossing the North Slope have averaged more than 400 spills annually since 1996. By 2009, over 6,000 spills of toxic substance totaled over 2.7 million gallons for the 13 year period. Forty different substances from acid to waste oil have been spilled during routine operations—most commonly diesel, crude oil, and hydraulic oil—including spillage of more than 396,000 gallons of crude oil, 122,000 gallons of drilling muds, and more than a million gallons of produced water.

A large spill on the Coastal Plain, inside a national wildlife refuge, would be disastrous. A large amount of activity and equipment would be required to try to address the spill. If it occurred in the summer, breeding wildlife would be impacted and potentially oiled. Streams would also carry the oil northward into coastal lagoons, bays, and river deltas within the Arctic Refuge and the coastal waters of the Beaufort Sea. Waterborne oil is very difficult to contain and the amount recovered is usually but a small proportion of that spilled. The shallow streams and rivers and their aquatic resources, including Dolly Varden and Arctic grayling, would be at significant risk. Furthermore, oil could be present for decades as it degrades slowly at low temperatures like those on the Coastal Plain.

Climate Change

The northern location of the Arctic Refuge makes it especially susceptible to climate change. The greatest increases in temperature due to climate change have been in polar areas of the world, with temperatures rising nearly twice as fast in the Arctic than in the rest of the world. Burning of the potential oil and gas from the Coastal Plain would contribute further to climate change through CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, adding to the large effects already taking place in the northern region where the Arctic Refuge is located. Climate change increases coastal erosion, wildfire, and the evaporation of lakes and ponds on the Arctic Refuge.

Taking Action

The entire Arctic Refuge deserves to be protected forever as wilderness and as one of the few places on earth wherein the first priority is wildlife conservation. Numerous energy alternatives are available that preclude any reason for exploiting what potential oil and gas resources there may be in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. To ensure the safety of wildlife and their habitat, Congress should designate the entire Arctic Refuge as wilderness, as well as increase conservation and develop clean energy resources to secure a better future. We can and must take action now to forever protect the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by designating it as wilderness as recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 2015 Comprehensive Conservation Plan and supported by President Obama.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: An American Crown Jewel In Need of Permanent Protection

The entire Arctic Refuge deserves to be protected forever as wilderness and as one of the few places on earth wherein the first priority is wildlife conservation.


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