Most Americans have heard of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but many fewer are familiar with the Western Arctic. Much of the land in this northwestern reach of our country is covered by the 22 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, also known as the “Reserve.”
Contrary to the image evoked by its name, the Reserve is not a series of underground tanks filled with crude oil for use in a national emergency. It is rather the largest single tract of public land in the United States, home to an amazing array of Arctic wildlife, including imperiled species such as polar bears, spectacled and Steller’s eiders, and ringed and bearded seals. There are also two herds of caribou that use this habitat, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, Pacific walrus, peregrine falcons, and much more.
Federal law requires the Bureau of Land Management to protect the incredible fish and wildlife resources of the Reserve while also implementing an oil and gas leasing program. The current management plan for the area, known as an Integrated Activity Plan (IAP), balances these dual goals by permitting oil and gas development on over 11 million acres — a little over half of the Reserve — while restricting development in many of the most important areas for wildlife.
Foremost among these protected “Special Areas” is the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area in the northeastern portion of the Reserve. This region — one of the largest wetlands complexes in the circumpolar Arctic — provides habitat for a multitude of birds and wildlife, including up to 100,000 molting geese of several species, over half a million shorebirds, high densities of loons and eiders, denning polar bears, and tens of thousands of caribou in the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd. It is vital for wildlife and globally significant to biodiversity.
Unfortunately, the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area and the entire IAP are under threat from the Trump administration and its “energy dominance” mantra. Apparently believing that over 11 million acres of the Reserve is not enough for development, the administration has proposed amending the IAP to open even more areas to drilling — especially the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, which is close to existing oil and gas activity.
Defenders opposes this effort to upset the current balance and sacrifice some of the most valuable fish and wildlife habitat in the region to even more oil and gas drilling. In Alaska, there is already a huge area of state lands in the central Arctic devoted to oil and gas production, and the Trump administration seeks to industrialize the Arctic Refuge, our nation’s largest and most iconic wildlife preserve refuge, for fossil fuel development as well. Enough is enough!
Less than 1% of Alaska’s Arctic coastal eco-region is statutorily protected. We need environmental safeguards in this area of the world, especially in light of our changing climate. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the planet as a whole and sustaining Arctic wildlife populations will become increasingly challenging in the years ahead. Turning critical wildlife habitat into more oilfields won’t help.