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.