Photo: Ian Shive /TandemStock

5 Reasons You Should Still Care About ANWR

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge still needs protection. Here’s why it matters.

Imagine a nearly untouched swath of wild landscape as big as South Carolina. It sounds almost too good to be true. The good news? It’s not. This pristine place exists—as long as outdoor adventurers and conservationists speak up fast and advocate for its permanent protection. 

At over 19 million acres in size, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is one of the last great wild landscapes in the U.S.—and one of the most controversial. That’s because it sits over about 10 billion barrels of oil. But on the surface, the refuge encompasses rugged mountains and undeveloped coastal plain. Home to mighty peaks and crystalline braided rivers, the roadless expanse is a wilderness explorer’s dream. But, more importantly, it’s the ancestral home of the Gwich’in people, who have been fighting alongside conservationists and advocates to protect the area for decades.

“It’s a powerful, powerful landscape,” says Andy Moderow, the Alaska Director for conservation group Alaska Wilderness League. But with many areas never designated as protected wilderness, he warns, it’s not in the clear quite yet.

Today, the land’s protection is still touch and go. Though President Biden suspended oil and gas drilling leases issued under the prior administration, ANWR’s advocates see the move as a temporary stop-gap measure, and Congressional legislative action as the only way to ensure protection. Meanwhile, climate change continues to push stressed wildlife to their limits, making it more critical than ever to focus the attention of outdoor users—and inspire them to speak up. Here are five reasons why you should call on your representative to protect ANWR. 

1. The Arctic Refuge is one of the wildest places on Earth.

Moderow has seen more of the Alaskan Interior than most people. Born and raised in Alaska in a dogsledding family, he learned to mush at a young age and raced the Iditarod in 2001, cutting across nearly 1,000 miles of frozen tundra and coastline from Anchorage to Nome. But none of that touches the Arctic Refuge.

“I remember my first trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Moderow says. “It was in 2008. We flew up to a river called the Jago with packrafts. It was over the summer solstice, and the sun never set.”

On that trip, he saw a richness of wildlife like nowhere he’d ever been: Arctic foxes hunting for rodents; caribou feeding on the tundra, getting ready to begin their annual migration south; a young bear that took one sniff of their campfire and turned and ran for miles. “We may very well have been the first humans they’d ever seen,” Moderow guesses.

2. It’s a chance to (finally) do right by Indigenous peoples.

U.S. history is dark with broken promises, forced relocations, and massacres of Native Americans. Protecting the Arctic Refuge, which the Native Gwich’in people rely on for sustenance, is a chance for conservation groups to follow the lead of the Gwich’in tribes who seek protections for the Refuge, says Moderow.

Photo: Ian Shive /TandemStock

3. There’s some seriously incredible wildlife.

From wolves and polar bears, to Dall sheep and muskox, the Arctic Refuge is rich with animal life, all of which would be impacted if access roads and drills started showing up in their backyard.

The Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain is also crucial calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, which the Gwich’in rely on. Protecting the herd—which currently crosses just one gravel road over the hundreds of miles it migrates each year—is critical to protecting the Gwich’in way of life, Moderow says.

4. Leaving oil in the ground can reduce global warming.

Yes, there’s oil in the Arctic, and we need oil to run our cars and manufacture the plastic that so much of our lives rely on. But the planet is warming up fast, and burning more oil is only going to make it worse. One of the best ways to trap carbon is to avoid releasing it in the first place, says Moderow. Protecting the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas drilling is one big way we can help protect our planet.

5. It’s the trip of a lifetime.

Climbers, campers, backpackers, packrafters, and anglers can all find a mind-blowing wealth of adventure in ANWR. There aren’t too many places left where you can truly immerse yourself in the wild and not see another human being—let alone a building or road—for days on end.

“The Arctic Refuge has everything from towering granite peaks to the icy Arctic Ocean,” says Moderow. “For anyone who loves the outdoors, visiting the Arctic Refuge will always be the trip of a lifetime.”

The Public Lands Fund supports the Alaska Wilderness League’s work in advocating for the permanent protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and working with the Gwich’in people to protect those cultural, ecological and recreational significant lands from extraction and development. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.