The Last Great Wilderness

(photo by Scott Dickerson/Alaska Stock)

The Arctic Refuge remains an unspoiled American treasure—for now

[by E. Donnall Thomas jr.]


“Here still survives one of Planet Earth’s own works of art. This one symbolizes freedom.”

—Lowell Sumner
National Park Service biologist, 1953

I will never forget the first time I dipped my toe in the Arctic Ocean. Despite the early August date, a mountain snowstorm had kept us grounded on Barter Island at the beginning of a Brooks Range sheep hunt. Since we were hunting with longbows, the smart money was on the sheep. With nothing else to do while we waited for the weather to clear, I wandered up to the local medical clinic. A young physician with several years of experience in Native communities, I was able to give the friendly staff some advice on their new ER equipment. Then I headed to the beach.

Although I’d spent time on six of the seven seas, I’d never seen one like this before. Bare, gravel shoreline stretched for miles in both directions, but there were no waves. The arctic ice pack lay so close to shore then that the surface water couldn’t develop any momentum. A layer of cold fog hung low overhead, making the noon sunlight feel suffused and eerie. I really did walk down to the water and immerse the toe of one boot. Although I had lived in Alaska for several years by then, I had never experienced anything like this elsewhere around the state. Long before Jurassic Park was conceived and filmed, I felt aware of having entered a timeless world in which the senses’ ordinary rules of engagement no longer applied. I’ve experienced similar wonder every time I’ve been back.

That lonely beach marks the northern boundary of the Arctic hoto National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or Arctic Refuge). Covering more than 19 million acres in the extreme northeastern corner of Alaska, this is the largest of the country’s 560 refuges and among the least visited. The National Wildlife Refuge system began in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt, the greatest wildlife advocate ever to occupy the White House, created the Pelican Island refuge in Florida to protect bird life from exploitation by commercial plume hunters. Refuges have played a crucial role in preserving America’s wildlife and wild places ever since.

(photo by Lori and Don Thomas)

The move to preserve and protect this ecologically unique area began during the 1950s with a study by National Park Service planner George Collins and biologist Lowell Sumner titled “Northeast Alaska: The Last Great Wilderness.” In 1956, Wilderness Society president, Olaus Murie, and his wife, Margaret, led an expedition into the Upper Sheenjek Valley of the Brooks Range. Upon their return they argued passionately for protection of the area, and in 1960, the Eisenhower administration created the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Most of those nearly 9 million acres were designated Wilderness, which permanently bars roads, vehicles, permanent structures, mining, logging, and oil exploration and is the highest level of protection from development public land can receive. Provisions of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) created the 19-million-acre Arctic Refuge. Although most of the additional land did not receive Wilderness protection, the bill specifically required Congressional approval before any oil and gas drilling could begin. Conflicts and controversies regarding future development in the area arose at once.

To understand the significance of the discussion today, it is important to appreciate the land and its intrinsic value to wildlife and people. Lagoons and deltas from northward-flowing rivers form a vast system of wetlands along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. Farther inland to the south, the coastal plain forms vast tundra habitat before the peaks of the Brooks Range rise over 9,000 feet into the alpine. Across the continental divide into the Yukon drainage, the tree line reappears and open tundra yields to boreal forest. No other part of the Arctic includes so many distinct, contiguous ecological zones.

While the terrain may look empty at first, it actually supports a deceptive amount of wildlife. Density may be low by the standards of temperate zones, but they are high for the Arctic. Coastal wetlands provide breeding grounds for vast numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds every summer. Nearly 200 avian species inhabit the refuge. Some migrate annually to all 50 states and six continents, confirming that the biological influence of the region reaches far beyond Alaska. The coast and adjacent ice provide crucial habitat for polar bears, now listed as a threatened species. Rivers teem with grayling and char, and wolves and tundra grizzlies roam freely.

Numbering nearly 200,000 animals, the great Porcupine caribou herd calves on the coastal plain every spring after wintering in the southern portion of the refuge. Midsummer, most of the animals migrate eastward into Canada before completing a clockwise circle in the fall. Their route covers up to 2,000 miles, making this the world’s longest annual largemammal migration. Several times, when Alaska looks like Africa’s famous Serengeti for a couple of weeks each summer, I’ve caught the tail end of their eastward movement into Canada. Empty land? I don’t think so.

Except for the presence of birds, polar bears, and occasional people, the shores of ANWR are pretty lonely. (RGB Ventures / SuperStock / Alamy Stock)

Of course people live there too, even if their numbers are small. Alaska Natives—Inupiat along the coast and Gwich’in (“the caribou people”) south of the mountains—have occupied the area for more than 10,000 years and still depend upon these wildlife resources to maintain their culture and subsistence way of life. While some Alaska Native groups have expressed support for oil development, the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council (representing 229 native tribes in Alaska) officially opposes drilling on the refuge, as does the Tanana Chiefs Council and the National Congress of American Indians.

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