5 gems we need to protect in the Western Arctic

colorful small flowers

White Mountain Avens and Moss Campians, Western Arctic (also known as National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska).

Bob Wick, blm

Proposed rule would balance development with preserving “Special Areas”

UPDATE: The BLM's Western Arctic Special Areas Rule has been released!

In the Western Arctic lies the United States’ largest expanse of public land, a stretch that holds immense cultural significance and provides habitat to countless wildlife. But you wouldn’t know it by this place’s official name: “the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.”  

The name suggests a single purpose: providing oil and gas. However, this complex landscape is home to caribou and polar bears. It's the traditional homelands of Indigenous Peoples who have stewarded and relied upon these lands since time immemorial. Spanning more than 23 million acres, almost as big as the state of Indiana, the Western Arctic is not just a place we find petroleum—and it doesn’t deserve to be thought of that way. 

The Arctic is not a remote frontier for resource extraction; it is a fragile ecosystem facing unprecedented threats from climate change and human activity. 

Packrafters on a river

Packrafters on Utukok River, Alaska.

Kim Mincer, blm

Sure enough, the Western Arctic is under constant threat from oil companies eager to industrialize the landscape with oil rigs, drill pads, pipelines and infrastructure aimed at extracting, refining and distributing fossil fuels that contribute to the climate crisis. 

The rapid pace of warming in the Arctic (as much as four times faster than the rest of the world) amplifies the urgency of protecting its delicate landscape from that fossil fuel development. Melting sea ice, habitat degradation and the disruption of migratory patterns are just some of the consequences. 

The approval of ConocoPhillips' massive Willow project in 2023 prompted the Biden administration to review regulations governing the management and protection of the Western Arctic. That led to a rule aimed at ensuring maximum protection of “Special Areas,” as the law requires, in light of oil and gas development already occurring, as well as the sustainable management of surface resources across the region. 

“Special Areas”: Gems within the NPR-A

You might be asking yourself, what are these Special Areas? They are five designated parcels of land within the NPR-A that harbor exceptional ecological and cultural significance. They make up more than 13 million acres of land.  

map of the special areas of the western arctic

Map shows the special areas of the Western Arctic, also known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska

Teshekpuk Lake Special Area

Meaning "big enclosed coastal water" in Iñupiaq, Teshekpuk Lake is Alaska's largest lake and the heart of a critical Arctic wetland complex. With more than 3.6 million acres, the Special Area shelters the Teshekpuk caribou herd during calving season and countless vulnerable birds, such as king eiders and red-throated loons. Indigenous communities rely on its resources for sustenance and cultural continuity. Unfortunately, climate change-induced challenges, such as the encroachment of saltwater into freshwater lakes, threaten its delicate balance.  

caribou grazing

Teshekpuk Caribou in the Western Arctic.

Bob Wick (BLM)

Colville River Special Area

Spanning 2.4 million acres along Alaska's Colville River, this haven for birds hosts a rich repository of dinosaur fossils. Its rugged bluffs provide nesting grounds for gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons and golden eagles, while the river teems with vital subsistence resources like whitefish and northern pike. The nearby communities of Nuiqsut and Anaktuvuk Pass rely on a healthy Colville River for traditional and subsistence activities. The river, however, faces pressure from oil and gas development and its environmental risks. 

Utokok Uplands Special Area

The Utokok Uplands represent the largest Special Area in the Western Arctic, encompassing more than seven million acres. The Uplands have the highest concentration of Alaska brown bears–grizzlies–in the Arctic, and they serve as critical habitat for wolves, moose and wolverines. More than 40 rural villages depend on the Western Arctic Caribou Herd that makes this area home. The Utokok river was a historic travel route for Iñupiat hunters, and it flows to the Chukchi Sea, providing an essential habitat for pink and chum salmon. However, accelerated oil and gas development threatens the region's biodiversity and the communities that depend on it.   

sunset over river

Sunset on the Colville River. North Slope, Alaska.

Paxton Woelber, flickr

Peard Bay Special Area

Peard Bay spans 107,000 acres and serves as a sanctuary for ice-dwelling seals and nesting spectacled eiders. Tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds visit its shores, highlighting its ecological importance and vulnerability to environmental disruptions.  

Kaseguluk Lagoon Special Area

Meaning “spotted seal place” in Iñupiaq, the 97,000-acre Kaseguluk Lagoon is one of the largest and most pristine coastal lagoon systems in the world and supports the richest and most abundant bird life of all Alaska’s Arctic coastal lagoons. Shielded from the Chukchi Sea by a series of barrier islands, the lagoon’s shallow, protected waters are excellent habitat for molting and calving beluga whales, and support countless migratory birds, as well as seals, walrus and polar bears. The shallow sheltered waters act as crucial breeding and feeding grounds.  

Wildflowers with hiker in background

Wildflowers with hiker in background near Utukok River.

Kim Mincer, BLM