On the Brink: The final days in the fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Article by Syler Peralta-Ramos/ Images by various iLCP Fellows

Where the Brooks Range slopes towards the waters of the Arctic Ocean and the northern lights dance, one of the most wild ecosystems on the planet can be found. It is a place of rebirth in the truest form; where a caribou herd of 200,000 give birth to calves each spring, where millions of birds migrate from  6 of the 7 continents to lay their eggs, and where polar bears travel across the melting sea ice to den and give birth to newborn cubs. Local Gwich’in people know the landscape as “the sacred place where life begins”. Yet with pressure from the Trump Administration to begin the sale of oil and gas leases here as soon as the end of 2020, this important and pristine area will be in peril.

Known by most as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, this life-giving wilderness is as remote as any other in the United States. Few distant landscapes are as recognized widely as the Arctic Refuge. Unfortunately, however, the majority of Americans know of the Refuge not for its unrivaled beauty, but rather, the political controversies that have surrounded the region for six decades. 

Its story began just one year after Alaska achieved statehood in 1959 when 8.9 million acres were set aside for an “Arctic Wildlife Range”, a far smaller preserve that laid the initial groundwork for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that would soon follow. Unlike the Refuge, the Range’s history was simple and uncontested. Only when the preserve was expanded did a small caveat create one of the most heavily-debated parcels of land in America’s history.
Image by Peter Mather. The Porcupine caribou herd crosses a river in the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is this landscape that is slated to be leased for drilling as early as winter of 2020. 

When the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 created the 19.6-million acre Wildlife Refuge, there was a condition that Congress could decide whether or not oil and gas drilling would be permitted in the “1002 Area” – the northern section of the Refuge which is thought to contain reserves of oil, but is also one of the most critical sections of the ecosystem for the species the Refuge was created to preserve. 

Born at the dawn of the environmental movement, the Refuge and its 1002 Area was rapidly politicized, pitting the environmentally-driven Left with the monetarily-driven Right in a battle over the future of the land. The tides shifted back and forth depending on which party held the most political power, but approval for oil and gas exploration always failed to make it through the necessary branches of government – at least until 2017. 

Shortly after taking office, the Trump administration put drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge back on the table. Hidden quietly into an unrelated tax bill, President Trump signed the initial approvals needed to open the land to drilling. For the first time in its history, the federal government had the authority to lease drilling rights in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but it would require a few years of planning before the first heavy machinery could be set up on the coastal plain.  

This is where we stepped in. In response to this news, the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), The Wilderness Society, and the Alaska Wilderness League supported a series of rapid response expeditions into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to highlight the urgent need to protect this threatened national treasure. The Stories for the Arctic Refuge project includes 8 expeditions with a total of forty storytellers gathering images, video, artwork, and stories to share, engage and inspire North Americans to get involved in convincing the U.S. Congress to overturn its decision. With bags packed with the bare essentials, but full of camera gear, the crews set out across the Refuge.

Our efforts have never been more important as, on August 17, 2020, the President signed the final paperwork to move forward with an auction to sell drilling leases beginning as early as the end of 2020. The window of opportunity is rapidly closing, but the fight is not over yet.

Image by Peter Mather. iLCP team members Nathaniel Wilder and Bethany Paquette photograph wildlife while cooking dinner during their mission to document caribou calving on the coastal plain.

The politicization of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may be the greatest tragedy of its story. A logical conclusion to the political divide in the future of the Refuge should imply a similar debate in the voting public, however citizens are far from polarized on the issue. A 2019 Yale Climate Communications study found that nearly 70% of Americans oppose allowing the Refuge to be opened to oil drilling with a majority of both Republican and Democratic voters opposing the policy. Only 11% of the voters in the study were strongly in favor of drilling. Put in different terms, 89% of Americans have at least some reservations about drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

So why, in the middle of an oil price drop and public bipartisan unfavorability, is the Trump Administration moving forward with opening the Refuge to drilling? The answer, it seems, is almost entirely political. In 2018 Donald Trump spoke about opening the Refuge to oil and gas, explaining that when someone asked him if oil drilling on the Refuge would be included in the tax bill he said, “I don’t know, who cares? What even is [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]?”. 

After finding out that previous Republican presidents had failed to pass a bill that included such a provision, Trump claimed, “I loved it and we fought to get [it].” Trump’s reasoning for the inclusion of the Refuge in the bill was not based on environmental, cultural, or even economic factors. It appears to be purely a matter of personal ego and partisan politics. 

Upon hearing the news that the final paperwork had been signed to begin leasing the Refuge land for drilling, iLCP Fellow Peter Mather, the leader of the iLCP 2018 expeditions, said, “my thought right away was that I feel horrible for all of my Gwich’in friends that live and depend on caribou.” The Gwich’in people are the longest human inhabitants in the area in and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, having lived there for thousands of years. Their culture is as much a part of the landscape as the caribou that continue to sustain them to this day. 

With the support of iLCP, Fellow Neil Ever Osborne set out to make a film about the Refuge in 2018, but the film “We are Abel” instead focused on a newborn Gwich’in boy named Abel and his father’s fears of his son’s future in a world where the caribou lose their calving grounds to oil development. “Without some human element I think stories about [the Arctic Refuge] get lost in all the noise” Osborne explains. It is easy to lose sight of empathy when the issue at stake is surrounded by politics and takes place thousands of miles away from most of the American population. It was this very idea that inspired Osborne to tell the story of the Gwich’in people. “Hopefully, people will empathize with this little boy, as well as the caribou,” he says. 

Without caribou, the Gwich’in culture may have faded away long ago. Like many Native American and First Nation cultures, many of them live on the edge of poverty, having been shortchanged by the nations that absorbed them. “Without caribou, food would have to be flown in” Mather explains. “It costs as much as 8 U.S. dollars for just one box of mac-and-cheese”. Living off of the land in this part of the world is not just a cultural practice, it is the only sustainable way to live.
Image by David Thoreson. Paul Josie (pictured) is an avid hunter, fisherman and outdoorsman with a dream to run his own eco-travel company in the Old Crow, Yukon, region. Josie is also a young community leader serving as a Counselor for the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation. The ancient culture of the Canadian Gwich’in people developed along the migratory areas of the Porcupine Caribou and the village of Old Crow, 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Yukon. They are truly the people of of the caribou. They reside along the Porcupine River and the Porcupine Caribou have predictably migrated through this region but now are threatened by climate change and oil development on the coastal plain.

Image by Mark Kelly. A Gwich’in mother holds her young son. If drilling takes place on the Refuge, he could be the last generation of his culture to be able to depend on the Porcupine caribou herd in the ways that his ancestors have for thousands of years.

Katie Schuler, an iLCP Emerging League Filmmaker who accompanied Peter to Alaska believes that “protecting the refuge is a matter of human rights.” Having spent time with the Gwich’in people in the making of her film“Where Life Begins”Katie was able to see firsthand how their culture is intertwined with the migration of the Porcupine caribou herd. To harm the caribou is an act of environmental injustice and racism towards the people who have successfully stewarded the landscape for their entire existence. 

Hunting and fishing are among the only sources of income and sustenance for these remote Arctic communities. Their entire way of life depends on the health of the ecosystem in which they are a part. Life in Gwich’in villages simply could not exist if the caribou disappear, and drilling on the Refuge threatens to do just that.

Image by Patrick Clayton. A fisherman holds a Dolly Varden Trout in the crystal clear waters of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Drilling operations are known for reducing water quality in nearby streams, making life for fish in the far north even more difficult.

The 1002 Area of the Refuge is arguably the most important parcel of land in the Alaskan Arctic ecosystem. Each spring, the Porcupine caribou herd arrives in the tens of thousands to give birth to their calves. The spectacle, along with this vast landscape, has earned this area the nickname “American Serengeti” in reference to Africa’s large-scale land migration areas. 

Peter Mather remembers the moment he truly understood the importance of the Refuge. It was 2018 and with a team of photographers and filmmakers his assignment was to document the calving season, but the task was not an easy one. It was a particularly cold year and only a small portion of the herd’s migration was on the coastal plain with the rest trailing behind in the snow-covered land.

Image by Peter Mather. Nathaniel Wilder and Katie Schuler cross a small creek in a snowstorm on the Refuge. The team ran into a late-season snowstorm while trekking to the coastal plain to document the calving of caribou.

The few caribou that had arrived on-time were shy and easily spooked. “Caribou are quite sensitive and need a peaceful place in order to feel comfortable giving birth, which makes it an incredibly difficult thing to photograph”, Mather described. Instead of trying to approach a caribou giving birth, he set up his tent as a makeshift blind and waited for members of the herd to come to him. 

Before the arrival of the caribou, the land was quiet and empty. “It was as if the land was waiting for the caribou.” he said. 

After sitting practically motionless for 24 hours, Mather saw the first caribou arriving through a fog-bank. In the distance, a female caribou appeared to lay down to rest after having reached the calving grounds at the end of an 800-mile journey. Reaching the coastal plain is a moment of relative safety for caribou after they have left the predator-rich landscape in the mountains and foothills. Despite surviving the long journey, the caribou’s rest was short lived. She began standing and then sitting over and over again. 

“I knew something was going on,” he said. 

Through his viewfinder, Mather could see the hooves of the baby calf beginning to emerge from the mother each time she stood. Almost as quickly as the calf had been born, she was ready to try out her new legs. Wobbling “like a drunk person,” she stood up next to the mother and began to take her first steps across the tundra grasses.

Image by Peter Mather. A female caribou gives birth to a calf on the 1002 lands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When the iLCP expedition team arrived on the coastal plain to document the calving season, the area was a frozen slab of ice for most of June, which was horribly bad news for the caribou who have had to give birth to their young in the nutrient diminished foothills south of the coastal plain. The calves spent their first three weeks of life in the foothills where they are more susceptible to predators like wolves, grizzly bears and especially golden eagles. When the caribou do not make it to the 1002 lands on the coastal plain, the calf survival rates are greatly diminished.

Image by Peter Mather. A caribou mother keeps a close watch over her newborn calf on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The memory of that calf entering the world comes into Mather’s mind each time he thinks of the Refuge’s future. “None of that is going to happen if drilling is happening there” Mather believes. He is not alone in his beliefs. Studies have proven that roads displace caribou and increase calf mortality by forcing the herds into unsuitable habitat, and that is before you factor-in pollution, traffic, and drilling noise.

During calving season, the caribou are at their most vulnerable. Their senses are on high alert as a pregnant caribou or newborn calf can be more easily taken down by a pack of wolves or a grizzly bear. Now, imagine the stress of this moment in the caribou’s life-cycle with the addition of towering drills and roaring vehicle traffic interspersed between the herd. 

For the caribou, it is just not possible. In fact, even the Gwich’in people avoid the coastal plain during calving season due to beliefs of its sacred properties and fear of disturbing the cycles that sustain their communities. 

The coastal plain is a place of relative safety because fewer predators venture there. The flat tundra and its flora leaves nowhere for a predator to mount a sneak attack, but provides enough cover for caribou to blend into their environment. The 1002 area – which encompasses the coastal plain – is the only place where this occurs, leaving no substitute for the herd. 

Unlike the caribou, oil companies and politicians have lots of substitutes for this critical habitat. In fact, from an economic standpoint it makes little sense to drill there. While it is probable that a significant amount of oil exists beneath the Refuge, only a small fraction of what exists is worth the money required to extract it, refine it, and transport it to where it will be used. 

A congressional report from 2014 found that the cost of Alaskan oil, primarily from neighboring Prudhoe Bay, is 38% higher per barrel than oil found in the lower 48 states. This means that oil from the Arctic Wildlife Refuge would be costly for oil companies and their customers in comparison to alternative locations or energy sources. Obtaining oil from existing fields until renewables can replace them is not only a more environmentally and socially sound decision, but also a more economically sound decision too. 

Given the high cost of producing oil from the Refuge, low global oil prices, and the dropping price of cleaner renewable energy, it is possible that oil companies may refuse to drill given the lower likelihood of turning a profit there. 

The biggest loss to the average American, however, would not be the lack of oil profits, but the irreversible damage that would be left in its wake. The migration of the Porcupine caribou herd to the coastal plain is the last mammal migration of its scale left in North America and one of the last remaining on the planet. The caribou and their calving ground is the core of this entire debate because the caribou are the heart of the entire ecosystem. 

“Everything there depends on the caribou, from bears, wolves, foxes and people all the way down to plants that are fertilized by their bodies” Mather describes.

Image by Peter Mather. An Arctic fox feeds on a caribou on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

Though few people will ever visit the Refuge firsthand we all benefit from its existence in some way: indirectly through the comfort of knowing such a place exists or directly through migratory birds that connect distant backyards directly to the Arctic ecosystem. Though drilling would only occur in the 1002 area, the impacts would cast ripples through ecosystems thousands of miles away. 

This landscape is too vast to comprehend but you immediately get the sense it is also just too wild to be scarred by man” says Neil Ever Osborne. 

With the President’s finalization of plans to open the coastal plain to drilling, the fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is down to its final days. So, is there any hope left for the Refuge and the people who depend on it? 

Luckily, the answer is yes, and that power lies in each of our hands. 

Just two months away is a presidential election that could shape the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Trump administration has failed to represent the views of the majority of Americans by moving forward on plans to drill there. No matter what political party you favor, the best way to be heard is by voting and/or supporting organizations that will fight legal battles to protect the land and its living things.

Image by Peter Mather. An Arctic Tern protects a newly hatched chick on the plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The tern has the longest migration in the world, migrating from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back every year to raise their young on the pristine Arctic tundra.

While the decision to approve drilling is up to the Federal Government, the decision to actually drill is held by companies and banks who will finance the operations. Several of the largest U.S. financial institutions including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have expressed opposition to financing any operations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They have sided with the people rather than partisan politics and given the general public a greater voice over what happens on the Refuge, all because people are speaking out. 

Between legal battles and difficulties in finding financing on top of the already high production cost, would-be oil drilling operations could still be discouraged from ever taking place no matter what politicians approve.

Our voices matter more than ever, so the time is now to use them before it’s too late. In doing so, we speak not only for ourselves but for the millions of living things that depend on the caribou life-cycle, the cultures that were built upon them, and the future generations who will live with the consequences. 

Join The Wilderness Society and iLCP to help make your voice heard here.

Illustration by Stephanie Ryan. Gilbeau Pass, Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.