You Can Help Protect Alaska’s Pristine Wilderness

Photo: Bob Wick/ BLM

Development in the 23.4-million acre National Petroleum Reserve could put critical polar bear, wolf, and caribou habitat at risk. Learn what’s at stake and how to make your voice heard.

Imagine a wilderness the size of Indiana. A place so big and wild that it dwarfs national parks like Yellowstone. The place exists, and it’s on Alaska’s north slope. It’s the single largest unit of public land in the United States and one of the most remote places on Earth.

“You can fly over it for hours without seeing any development, any sign of man,” explains Kristen Miller, the acting executive director of conservation nonprofit Alaska Wilderness League. “It’s utterly quiet. In the summer, there’s light 24 hours a day, and you’re coming in contact with animals that may never have laid eyes on a human before. It’s hard to believe that there are areas that still exist in this prehistoric state at such a scale.”  

This massive area is known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Warren Harding originally designated the preserve back in 1923, earmarking it as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy. But by 1976, there had still been no major extraction—just a handful of test wells. So, the land was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management. Since then, more scientists and conservationists have come to realize what the local Inupiat people have always known: This section of Alaska has a rich ecology and deep cultural history unlike anyplace else in the world.

To the northeast, Kasegaluk Lagoon serves as a nursery for baby beluga whales. To the south, wolves prowl the riverbanks. And to the northwest, Teshekpuk Lake provides critical habitat for polar bears, dozens of species of birds, and the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, which the Inupiat people rely on for sustenance.

All of it is at risk from oil development—after all, “petroleum reserve” is in the place’s name. But, Miller argues, things have changed.

“This area was set aside originally in a time of war,” she explains. “And since then, there’s been a legislative mandate that says energy development should be managed for the preservation of the area’s surface values.” Basically, the law agrees that fossil fuels are an important resource—but says biodiversity and delicate ecosystems are, too. Now, there’s an extraction project on the horizon that will test those competing interests. 

A Teshekpuk Caribou looks up at  Northeast National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska Photo: Bob Wick/ BLM

“These projects are bigger than any other projects being proposed in the U.S. right now,” Miller says. Construction of the more imminent one, the so-called Willow Master Development Plan, would involve building a massive operations headquarters, an extensive road network, and five drill pads, each potentially big enough to host 50 wells. Then there’s the gravel mine, air strips, and processing facilities.

“From a climate perspective, this has the potential to produce 590 million barrels of oil,” Miller says. Drilling for that oil won’t just threaten the wilderness, it will threaten the planet. With greenhouse gas concentrations already peaking past points of no-return and the planet warming at an alarming rate, we just don’t have that kind of wiggle room, Miller explains. The best choice now is to leave all that oil in the ground.

Plus, Miller adds, Conoco-Phillips, the company behind the Willow Master Development Plan, wants to build all this stuff super close to critical ecological areas. There’s serious concern that the development could impact the polar bear population and endanger the local caribou.

“The Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd stays in this area all year long. The herd is the primary food source for the surrounding Inupiat community. If the caribou migration route gets cut off by development, then they can’t get back and forth from the lake to the places where they forage and calve,” Miller explains. If that happens, the Inupiat could lose access to the way of life they’ve relied on for thousands of years.

There are similar concerns in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 19-million acre area to the east of the National Petroleum Reserve. There, the Porcupine caribou herd, a traditional food source of the Gwich’in people, is also at risk.

These two reserves are the biggest fossil-fuel battlefields in the state right now.

“The oil industry is coming at us on both fronts, and we have to fight them on both fronts,” Miller says.

Fortunately, there’s a golden opportunity for that right now. The Bureau of Land Management just opened a public comment period concerning the Willow Master Development Project—which means anyone who cares about the outdoors or climate change has a chance to chime in.

“The administration needs to understand they cannot move forward with projects that are counter to their climate goals,” Miller says. “Climate is an issue for every part of the country whether you’re experiencing sea level rise in Florida, or your basement’s flooding in the Midwest, or you’re seeing fires in California. Everyone has a stake in this.”

You can join the Alaska Wilderness League efforts to protect this Alaskan jewel by leaving your comments here

Public Lands supports the Alaskan Wilderness League through the Public Lands Fund. Public Lands is committed to donating 1% of all sales to the Public Lands Fund, which supports organizations protecting new lands, improving existing lands, and furthering access and equity in the outdoors.

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