Media Resources

Reporter Memo: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), a bipartisan group of senators and representatives today introduced bills in Congress to protect the 1.4 million-acre coastal plain coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a designated wilderness area.

Emboldened by Donald Trump’s election, the Republican-controlled Congress has set its sights on opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan recently introduced Senate Bill 49 with the specific goal of allowing drilling in the very heart of the refuge—the fragile coastal plain. The Associated Press recently reported that with a Republican Congress and president having expressed a commitment to expanding fossil fuel drilling, Murkowski believes she could succeed this year.

At more than 19 million acres, the Arctic Refuge is America’s largest wildlife refuge and provides habitat and birthing grounds for native caribou, polar bear and migrating birds from across the globe, and a diverse range of wilderness lands. Its coastal plain—stretching north from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean—provides vital denning habitat for endangered polar bears and is the calving ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which contains more than 180,000 animals.

Oil and gas drilling would have devastating impacts on this pristine and fragile ecosystem, caused by the massive infrastructure needed to extract and transport oil. Drilling the Arctic is risky, would fragment vital habitat and chronic spills of oil and other toxic substances onto the fragile tundra would forever scar this now pristine landscape and disrupt its wildlife. 

We urge you to report on the dangers of oil exploration in the Arctic Refuge, and the importance of protecting it as wilderness for future generations of Americans.

The Arctic Refuge is a national treasure, and we have a moral obligation to protect it for future generations. It is an amazing, wild and diverse landscape stretching from south of the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. 

The Arctic Refuge was set aside for protection decades ago because of the critical ecological value it holds. It has always been off limits to oil and gas development and should remain that way permanently. Of the 19 million acres already set aside as the refuge, seven million are designated as wilderness, the highest degree of protection available in the U.S.  

This vast, wild place encompasses five distinct ecological regions, including the lagoons, beaches and salt marshes of coastal marine areas; broad expanses of low-lying plants on the coastal plain; windswept alpine tundra in the Brooks Range; interior highlands where arctic plants transition to boreal forest; and the tall spruce, birch, and aspen of the northern boreal forest. This varied habitat allows 42 fish species, 37 land mammals, eight marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species to thrive—including the most diverse and stunning populations of wildlife in the Arctic.

Researchers visit the refuge to study wildlife behavior, climate change and how plants and animals cope with a warming environment. Alaska Natives engage in subsistence activities such as hunting and fishing, which also bring sportsmen to the refuge. And the rivers, mountains and tundra attract visitors from around the world for recreational pursuits, like float trips, photography, hiking and viewing wildlife.

After a lengthy scientific review that incorporated much public input, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended in 2015 that most of the non-designated wilderness lands in the Arctic Refuge be designated wilderness. The agency received nearly a million public comments in support of this action, including from scientists, biologists and researchers. The Arctic Refuge is simply too wild to drill. 

This could be our last opportunity to save a vast, intact wilderness tract that is home to iconic species like polar bears, wolves and caribou. Generations of Americans have opposed drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and now we must protect it for generations to come.


The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than one million members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.