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Outside/In Presents The Refuge | Episode 1: Sibling Rivalry

Nick Mott
Vebjørn Aishana Reitan, polar bear guide and certified U.S. Coast Guard captain, on the refuge. "

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge began as a bold vision to preserve enough land to sustain a whole web of Arctic animals. Today, these 19 million roadless acres are home to moose and caribou, wolves and foxes, and birds that fly in from around the world to nest. Polar bears are using the coastal areas as a true refuge as the world warms and the sea ice retreats.

But shortly after ANWR was created, an enormous oil deposit was discovered nearby, and a different vision for the far north took hold.

For the month of August, Outside/In is featuring Refuge, a four-part Peabody award-winning documentary series from Threshold. This is part one.

In 2017, Congress opened part of the refuge for oil and gas development, and the Trump administration says they aim to start selling the drilling rights this winter. But opponents to drilling are saying: not so fast.

Credit Nick Mott
Vebjørn Aishana Reitan, polar bear guide and U.S. Coast Guard captain, on the tundra

But this isn’t just a fight between environmentalists and oil companies—the indigenous communities in the region are also fighting to be heard.

Both the Iñupiat and the Gwich’in have roots in the refuge that go back thousands of years. For some indigenous people, the refuge is sacred land that needs to be preserved. But others say oil development is the best hope for the future of their community.

Right now, this decades-long battle is coming to a head. Climate change is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and the plants, animals and people living there are struggling to adapt. Oil drilling could turn up those pressures, but as the Prudhoe Bay oil field continues drying up many Alaskans see drilling in ANWR as the way to revive their faltering economy.

About the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their website has information on plant and animal life in and around the refuge, as well as details on resource management, conservation, community partnerships, and ways to get involved.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), is the law that created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and preserved the potential for drilling in its coastal plain. The National Park Service offers a brief history of the law, or you can view the law itself here.


Map of the Refuge

ArcGIS map

Drilling in the Refuge

After decades of legal struggle, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was once again submitted to congress for approval in 2017, this time as a small addition to the much larger Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. When that law passed, it opened ANWR, but it also triggered a whole host of laws and next steps.

The first was the process of assessing the impact of drilling in the coastal plain of ANWR, an area known as the “1002.” The final Environmental Impact Statement was announced by the Department of Interior on September 19, 2019.

Litigation + Legislation

Since the passage of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act and the release of the EIS, drilling in ANWR has been the subject of litigation, led by coalitions of nonprofits, environmental lawyers, and Native Alaskan groups. There has there has also been a legislative response. On September 12, 2019, the House of Representatives passed a bill to close the refuge to drilling. You can read more about the process here.

Keeping Up on the News

The story of drilling in ANWR is unfolding as we speak. Many great articles have been written on the issue, from all sides, and we encourage you to dig in and see what is there. Some of our favorites have been done by the New York Times, who have done a lot of in-depth work on the refuge. This article is an excellent visual introduction.

We also like this look at what previous oil explorations in Alaska have left behind. Kiliii Yuyan’s photographic explorations of the arctic are also a beautiful visual resource.

For the most current coverage, we recommend following Alaska Public Media and Anchorage Daily News.

Alaska's Dark Days

When Lisa Murkowski references “dark days” for Alaska, this budget crisis is part of the problem the state is facing. It’s for these reasons, among others, that 65% of Alaskans support drilling in ANWR, when nationally, 67% of people are against it.

The Muries

If you’re interested in the life and work of Mardy and Olaus Murie, Two in the North is a great book on their life and adventures.

From the Archives

CNN tape of Senator Lisa Murkowski announcing the passage of oil development in the Refuge

1944 film, “Alaskan Highway”

ARCO Film, Journey to Prudhoe

PBS NewsHour coverage of the 1970s American oil shortage

ABC coverage of conflict in Tehran

Smokey Bear campaigning for green and healthy forests

The above text was originally written for Threshold's website.

Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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