Lisa Hupp/USFWS via Flickr, Public Domain

Our Campaigns

Protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Goal: Defend the caribou, polar bears and other wildlife that depend on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge against attempts to explore and drill for oil.

One of the most spectacular wildlife migrations in the world takes place each spring and summer on the coastal plain of America's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Some 200,000 caribou migrate hundreds of miles annually to give birth there. Millions of migratory birds flock there to nest. Polar bears and cubs den on the coastal plain over the winter. And, due to this abundance of wildlife, for thousands of years the native Gwich’in people have depended on this biological jewel for survival, with a culture centered around the caribou herd.

  • <h3>A DIZZYING ARRAY OF WILDLIFE</h3><h5>More than 200,000 Porcupine caribou migrate to the Arctic coastal plain to give birth.</h5>
  • <h3>A POINTLESS DRIVE TO DRILL</h3><h5>Why drill in one of our last wild places when clean energy is advancing?</h5>
  • <h3>THE ARCTIC CULTURAL AND COASTAL PLAIN PROTECTION ACT</h3><h5>We must restore protections that prohibit drilling in the coastal plain.</h5>
  • <h3>ACTION & RESULTS</h3><h5>The fight over whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been going since the middle of the last century. Environment America has been a part of the broad bi-partisan coalition fighting to protect the Arctic Refuge, engaging our nationwide membership on the issue since the early 1990s.</h5>
An irresponsible drive to drill in one of the last wild places

The coastal plain of the refuge is variously described as the “biological heart” of the Refuge and “America’s Serengeti,” due to the dizzying array of wildlife living and migrating there. From millions of migratory birds traveling from all 50 states and six continents, to the more than 200,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd (named after the Porcupine River), to polar bears, wolves, muskoxen, arctic foxes, wolverines, brown bears, golden eagles, tundra swans and snowy owls, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is vital habitat for dozens of species.

Seeing the caribou move across the tundra can be an overwhelming experience. Author Terry Tempest Williams recounts in Orion Magazine watching the caribou on her trip to the refuge. “Heads, antlers, backs, tails, legs, hooves, one caribou merges into another... it is an endless stream of animals walking across the tundra.”

Ken Madsen

The Arctic Refuge has qualities that simply can’t be replaced — a wildness and a vibrancy that is at once old and yet always new. It has old stillness and new life. In "Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony," author Stephen Trimble argues eloquently why the Arctic Refuge should be allowed to fulfill the grand ambitions of The Wilderness Act of 1964.  "Our bargain is this:  we leave the Refuge alone, we leave the Porcupine Caribou to their calving, the Beaufort Sea polar bears to their denning. We protect this place. And, in turn, we lead lives less impoverished. We fall asleep knowing wilderness has a shelter, and at least one place remains where the ancestral richness of life survives."

The Arctic Refuge coastal plain may well be “America’s Serengeti,” but it may also sit on top of underground reservoirs of oil (and then again, it may not). Sadly, our society’s voracious appetite for oil imperils the entire immense wilderness landscape and the vast network of wildlife that depends on it.

Viktor Loki via
Irrational and pointless

With today’s clean energy advancements, the idea of threatening polar bears, caribou and the native Gwich’in people that depend on the caribou, and all the countless other species that call the refuge home for more oil feels both antiquated and foolhardy.

We live in a time of unprecedented expansion of clean energy. The clean energy revolution is already in full swing, with each of the last five years seeing the biggest additions to our national electric generating capacity coming from wind and solar. Combine that with the breakthroughs in battery technology and electric cars, and it is clear that the way we power our economy will continue to rely less each year on fossil fuels.

Some places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have always been too special to ruin, and should be left in their natural pristine state. Against the backdrop of expanding clean energy technologies, oil exploration and drilling in this wildlife refuge becomes irrational and pointless.

The current threat to the Arctic Refuge

Environment America acts as a watchdog in Washington, D.C., keeping an eye on any legislation or policy that threatens the special places Americans love. Right now our public lands team is actively engaged with a broad coalition focused on protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2015, President Obama declared the Arctic Refuge “an incredible place, pristine, undisturbed, [supporting] caribou, and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries has supported many Alaska native communities,” and for the first time made it the official position of the Department of the Interior to manage the coastal plain as wilderness, and to ask Congress to designate it as such.

In December of 2017, Congress passed and President Trump signed a massive overhaul of our nation’s tax code. Tucked into the bill was a provisionthat requires the Department of the Interior to offer at least two lease sales for oil and gas development in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. This reversed decades of protection. In January 2021, the first lease sale was held and leases to 9 tracts of land were awarded.

On January 20, 2021 President Biden issued a temporary moratorium on all leasing activity in the refuge. The lease-holders still hold the leases but no additional permits will be issued for now.

If allowed to move forward, drilling would be devastating. Heavy seismic equipment would scar the landscape for decades and  could crush polar dens before drilling even begins. Drilling itself comes with more equipment and heavy vehicles dragged over the tundra and pipelines crossing the calving ground.

How can we protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

How can we protect this amazing place before it’s too late?

RIGHT NOW: Environment America joined the Gwich’in Steering Committee and other environmental groups to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration to block oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge. This lawsuit is still in progress and a favorable ruling could stop the current leases from moving forward.

Congress must pass and the president must sign a new tax bill removing the lease sale requirement passed in 2017. 

IN THE MONTHS TO COME:  We’re calling on Congress to designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a wilderness area, putting it off limits to drilling forever. To make that happen, we need to win enough hearts and minds to the premise that there are just some places too spectacular and special to ruin for oil. 

Florian Schulz
A place of enduring beauty

We, along with millions of other Americans, believe the enduring beauty, history and culture of places like the Arctic Refuge are worth far more than the short-term value of any oil or gas we can extract from them. Acting as if the opposite is true is the definition of shortsightedness. Protecting special places like America’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will require us to act decisively and boldly.

Our success also depends on gaining support that transcends the partisan divide. Fortunately, this is a cause that can unite hunters and hikers, anglers and bird-watchers, native tribes and small businesses, and academics and faith leaders.

You can help

Tell the Senate to restore protections to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge