Keeping the Wild in the Wilderness

Story and photos by Chuck Graham

From my limestone perch I watched 18 Dall sheep gradually grazing across layers of permafrost, peat moss and hillocks, the tundra biome teeming with Alaskan megafauna within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Doing my best to meld into a lichen-covered cathedral, just 100 feet across from me they nimbly traversed above a swift-moving Kongakut River 300 feet below.

Runnels braid and flow beneath the Mordor-like North Slope of the Brooks Range, rushing northward toward the Coastal Plain, gritty barrier islands, Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. In all, the ANWR encompasses 19.3 million acres, one of the most wild, untouched habitats on the planet. 

There are no roads, no maintained trails or helipads, and the water is so sweet and clean, filtering it is always an afterthought. Access into the ANWR is via bush plane and rafting rivers like the Canning and Kongakut (or backpacking in for the truly intrepid). The impressive Brooks Range towers as high as 9,000 feet above countless tributaries like the Pagilak and Paulaluk that feed the Kongakut.

Caribou walk along the vast Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which includes 19.3 million acres of some of the most wild, untouched habitats on earth.

However, since 1960, the refuge has been on the cusp of drilling for oil, particularly on the vast Coastal Plain. Due to political pressure, the 1.5 -million-acre Coastal Plain was not protected where it is estimated that up to 11 billion barrels of oil lie deep beneath the permafrost. 

Since it became a wildlife refuge in 1960, it has grown to be the largest refuge in North America, yet politicos have drawn lines in the tundra bickering on whether to drill for oil. However, this region of Northeast Alaska belongs to Native Americans – the Inupiat in the north and the Gwich’in in the southeast. 

They still subsist on their lands in the Arctic relying on the 130,000-plus Porcupine caribou herd that migrate in from Northwest Canada, eventually converging on the Coastal Plain and their calving grounds. This massive caribou herd performs the longest migration of any terrestrial mammal on the planet. 

A group of rafters make their way through the Kongakut River.

The ANWR supports 43 mammal species such as musk ox, grizzly bear, Arctic and red fox, Dall sheep, gray wolf and wolverine. During the Arctic’s brutally frigid winters, the Coastal Plain is important denning habitat for polar bears. At least 250 bird species have been documented in the refuge. Bald and golden eagles rule the skies. Waterfowl like harlequin and long-tailed ducks, gadwall and mergansers swim the rushing rivers effortlessly. In the spring and summer thousands of shorebirds rely on the Coastal Plain for nesting habitat. If oil drilling was ever to be allowed in the ANWR, it would disrupt its natural wonders, thus setting a precedent for all remaining wild places throughout the West.

A provision in the 2017 federal tax bill made oil and gas exploration in ANWR the law, but as law requires, leases went up for bid on January 6, 2020. Those bids fell far short of their financial mark of $900 million. About half the region received no offers at all, and not one major oil company submitted a bid. Only two smaller companies each secured a lease totaling $14 million. Many Alaskan politicians argue drilling would be good for jobs, the economy and state revenue.

However, on his first day in office, President Biden put a temporary halt to oil and gas drilling in the roadless expanse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Currently, the two small oil companies that did secure leases on the Coastal Plain, Regenerate Alaska, a subsidiary of Australia-based 88 Energy, and Knik Arm Services, a small Alaska company managed by an investor named Mark Graber, have rolled back their efforts to move forward with oil exploration. 

The costs of building roads, helipads and other infrastructure on the Coastal Plain has apparently far outweighed the means. For now, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is safe.