Alaska’s Western Arctic contains a 23-million-acre tract of some of the most stunning wildlands on Earth. It teems with migratory birds, caribou, polar bears, wolves and other wildlife, but is cursed with what may be the ugliest and most ill-fitting name of any wild landscape: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
In the aftermath of World War I, President Warren G. Harding set aside this area on Alaska’s North Slope in 1923 as an emergency oil reserve for the U.S. Navy, which was then converting its fleet from coal power to oil. Nearly 90 years later, one of the largest tracts of undisturbed public land on the planet is seen as a dartboard by oil and gas companies, and there’s nothing they would love more than to throw drill bits at it.
It is a vast and beautiful landscape that is not only important habitat to millions of birds and animals, but also home to Alaska Natives who live by subsistence hunting and fishing, and who need a healthy and productive ecosystem to provide a plentiful supply of food.
Even larger than its 19-million-acre cousin to the east — the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — this area known to many as the Western Arctic Reserve contains one of the largest wetlands complexes in the circumpolar Arctic and provides extraordinary habitat values for birds and other species.
And Teshekpuk Lake — Alaska’s third-largest — provides year-round habitat for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, thousands of nesting and molting waterfowl, and fish.
In 1976, Congress recognized the special ecological and wilderness values of these lands and transferred management of them to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). That agency has since designated four Special Areas: Teshekpuk Lake, Colville River, Utukok Uplands and Kasegaluk Lagoon, all of which were recognized for their significant values, including their wild character and a diversity of bird species, caribou, and marine mammals such as threatened polar bears, walrus and seals.
Oil and gas leases have been sold in the Western Arctic Reserve for years, and further development is part of the nation’s long-term energy plan. But, as directed by Congress, that development must be done with restraint to provide maximum protection of areas identified as having significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, or historical or scenic value.
As the BLM considers a variety of scenarios for future management of this spectacular place, we are committed to fighting for permanent protection of the sensitive wildlife habitat in designated and proposed Special Areas. Research by our staff scientists is helping identify critical habitat and make the case for limiting the locations where drilling can occur.
The reserve is cursed with an ugly name, but it’s far too beautiful and special to throw away.