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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The Evolving Meaning of a Symbolic Landscape
America's National Wildlife Refuge System
America's National Wildlife Refuge System was born 95 years ago. It began humbly, with a
three-acre Island off the coast of Florida. Market hunters had relentlessly pursued Pelican
Island's nesting pelicans, herons, and egrets for their fashionable feathers. If the birds were to
survive, something needed to be done. Our first conservationist President, Theodore Roosevelt,
took an unprecedented action: he declared the tiny island a sanctuary for birds --the first National
The coastal nesting grounds of other migratory birds were also in need of protection, and
more refuges were set aside. In the 1930s, the developing idea of a refuge system was expanded
to include the waterfowl breeding grounds of the north-central states. Habitat for bison, elk, and
pronghorn antelope in the western states was added to the system, then habitat for Alaska's giant
moose of the Kenai peninsula and brown bears of Kodiak Island. In more recent years, refuges
have been established to protect endangered species such as the Key deer, Attwater's prairie
chicken, and the Mississippi sandhill crane.
Today, the National Wildlife Refuge System includes over 500 units, protecting 93 million
acres throughout all 50 states. Unlike most other conservation units, wildlife refuges are mostly
wetlands, important habitats for the migratory birds that are a major trust responsibility of the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And unlike many other public lands, the refuge system is not
governed by multiple-use principles. The primary purpose of the National Wildlife refuge system
is wildlife conservation. People are allowed to use and enjoy refuges in ways compatible with
this purpose. The priority public uses of the Refuge System are hunting, fishing, wildlife
observation, photography, environmental education, and interpretation.
Over the years, the range of values the refuge system protects has been expanded by the
designation of 71 wilderness areas, encompassing 20.7 million acres. These areas provide our
highest level of protection for wetlands, prairies, forests, and islands. From the Florida Keys to
New Jersey's Great Swamp to Minnesota's north woods to Arizona's desert, areas are managed
to maintain their wild, undeveloped character. And in Alaska, a wide spectrum of marine, sub-
arctic, and arctic habitats benefit from the added protection of wilderness. This state holds the
vast majority of wilderness within the Refuge System, more than eighteen million acres.
What does wilderness contribute to refuges?
The wilderness overlay deepens and broadens our perspective of these landscapes,
compelling us to think beyond managing them as habitat for the wildlife species of greatest
interest to us. It leads us to think more ecologically. In the wording of the Wilderness Act,
wilderness is "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man," a
reservoir of biological diversity and natural ecological and evolutionary processes. In the words
of the pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold, wilderness is a laboratory, "a base datum of normality,
a picture of how healthy land maintains itself"(Leopold 1949).
But wilderness embodies values that transcend the biophysical. The history of the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge is the story of a nation's evolving awareness of the range of meanings
and lessons wilderness landscapes offer.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The 20 million acre Arctic Refuge is the largest, the wildest and the most free from human
influences and intrusions of all the national wildlife refuges. The effort to protect it began in
1952 with National Park Service planner George Collins and biologist Lowell Sumner. In the
course of an Alaska-wide inventory of potential parklands, they discovered the superlative values
of the eastern Brooks Range. Here was an area encompassing the full spectrum of North
American arctic and subarctic habitats, and large enough to be permanently self-sustaining.
Because caribou and other wildlife were rather unconcerned with the international border, they
urged Canada to join in the effort to create an international reserve.
Collins and Sumner recruited the acclaimed arctic biologist and Wilderness Society president
Olaus Murie, and the three launched a spirited campaign to protect the area. They and other
supporters debated which agency should administer it. Clearly, it possessed scenic and
recreational values most associated with parks. But a park, they feared, would be subject to
pressure to develop recreational facilities, perhaps even roads -- a thought anathema to their
vision of an unaltered wilderness.
Further, the concept of a national park where indigenous people hunted for subsistence was
not an idea the National Park Service was ready to sanction at that time. Yet no one wanted to
prevent the Natives in the area from hunting and trapping (Catton, 1997).
Another consideration was that in Alaska, establishing a national park might be politically
impossible. Thus, overall, it seemed that the most likely and the most wilderness-sensitive
protection would come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While many people where involved in the effort to establish the Arctic Range, clearly the
vision of Collins, Sumner, and Murie was the catalyst. These people, whom we refer to as the
refuge founders, foresaw the type of threats that would confront Alaska's natural areas.
As a result of the work of these founders and the thousands who joined them, on December
6, 1960, the Secretary of the Interior issued a public land order withdrawing 8.9 million acres in
northeast Alaska. It stated three purposes: to protect the area's unique wildlife, wilderness, and
recreational values. The Arctic National Wildlife Range was established.
The purpose of this effort was not fully realized, however. Canada had not yet acted to
protect adjacent areas, although they would later establish two National Parks adjoining the
refuge. What would become the greatest shortcoming of the legislation was the fact that the
range -- not thought to hold oil -- was not closed to oil development. Thus the underpinning of
the continuing and tumultuous debate over what the Arctic Refuge was, is, and should be.
The Range lay quietly until the mid-1970s when Congress began debating the establishment
of new refuges, parks and other conservation units in Alaska. In 1980, the Alaska National
Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed. The Act doubled the size the Range, renamed it the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and designated eight million acres of it as Wilderness. Special
provisions supported the subsistence activities of the local rural residents, including a priority
over other consumptive uses. But in this great conservation legislation there loomed large
compromises; among the most controversial was a mandate to study the oil and gas potential of
the refuge's northern coastal plain.
Pools of oil are now thought to lie beneath this expanse of tundra that slopes from the
mountains to the Beaufort Sea. Their size is uncertain, but they might hold billions of barrels,
worth billions of dollars. While oil development was prohibited by the Act, it left the possibility
open to future congressional action. Two decades after the act, after countless studies, countless
debates, the fate of this place remains undecided.
Vexing questions have emerged from the often-times bitter political controversy over
whether to develop this potential resource, or to preserve this primal place. Some questions have
been directed to science. For example, we've done extensive research on the question of potential
impacts of industrial development upon the 130,000 animal Porcupine caribou herd, whose
ancestral calving grounds lie atop these reservoirs.
But the more provoking questions resist the techniques of science. They defy the tools of
traditional economic valuation and cost-benefit analyses. Questions like how does the potential
reduction or displacement of caribou, or muskox, or polar bears or snow geese measure against
potential dollar revenues? How would diminished scenic beauty, diminished recreational
opportunities or diminished hunting traditions of the indigenous people stand against economic
For who, besides the couple thousand annual visitors to the refuge, is the Nation being asked
to forgo all these potential barrels of oil? And a more encompassing question: What relevance
does this remote place have, indeed, what relevance does the concept of wilderness have, for a
nation that, as Ramachandra Guha has pointed out, is so prone to over consumption, so resistant
to restraint, and so unwilling to accept the root causes of its ecological dilemmas (Guha 1989)?
Such questions led us to probe the history of the Arctic Refuge, to explore the deeper values
that those visionary conservationists found here in the 1950s, and sought to perpetuate. This
exploration inevitably led us to consider the evolving ideas that were to become encapsulated in
the Wilderness Act, to which the refuge's history is inextricably linked. In the process of this
researching and soul-searching, some insights have emerged that are relevant to the larger
questions -- and criticisms -- the wilderness idea faces today.
One such criticism is that the idea of wilderness is woefully ethnocentric, ignoring the
presence and effect of aboriginal people (Callicott 1991). The role of indigenous people was not
a central part of the vision of the refuge founders. They did not see a problem with the fact that
the area was sparsely populated by Native people who used the area for their subsistence. They
did not foresee the extent of future debate on Native land claims and self-determination, or how
to best provide for either the traditional uses or the changing uses of the land by indigenous
It is said that wilderness is a Euro-American invention, and that this concept of wilderness
inappropriately sets man apart from nature (Cronon 1995). If so, perhaps the idea of wilderness
has no relevance to other countries. Perhaps it holds no meaning for Americans who do not share
No doubt, the American idea of wilderness is deeply embedded in the notion that wilderness
is a vestige of our frontier past. From the scene of the first Europeans stepping off the Mayflower
to our mythologized era of westward expansion and conquest, wilderness is venerated as the
crucible of American culture. It is the setting we believe forged our unique national identity.
Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold argued that wilderness would preserve remnants of this
heritage and provide opportunities to revisit conditions of this pioneering past (Nash 1982).
Robert Marshall, the leading wilderness advocate of the 1930s, imported this cultural
heritage value to Alaska's Brooks Range and effectively advocated for a "permanent American
frontier" in northern Alaska (Marshall 1956). This wilderness-as-a-museum-of-cultural-heritage
idea was clearly present in the thinking of the refuge founders. In their seminal article, Northeast
Alaska, the Last Great Wilderness, George Collins and Lowell Sumner wrote that "This area
offers what is virtually America's last chance to preserve an adequate sample of the pioneer
frontier" (Collins and Sumner 1953). To founder Olaus Murie an important purpose of the
refuge was "to let the people of the future have a little opportunity to go to the wilderness to have
the inspiration that comes with the frontier" (Murie 1961).
But what value can this wilderness purpose hold for the Athabaskan Indians and the Inupiat
Eskimos who reside near and use the refuge? What about other Native Americans, or citizens of
Asian, Latin American or other descent? We need to recognize that the heritage meanings of
wilderness are not universally accepted.
Another charge we hear is that wilderness areas such as the Arctic Refuge are set aside
primarily for a discrete group of backpackers, hunters, climbers and floaters. Recreation, and the
restorative and personal-growth benefits associated with it, has long been a central component of
wilderness. It became enshrined in the Wilderness Act. It became one of the three original
purposes of the Arctic Refuge. Recreation here was, in Murie's words, "a superb opportunity . . .
satisfying an important human urge, the use of wilderness, as wilderness" (Murie 1961).
Protection of scenic values was also a prominent consideration in both passage of the
Wilderness Act and the establishment of the Arctic Refuge. It also continues to be employed by
refuge defenders. But scenery is another sandy foundation for a defense of this place. As pro-
development interests have pointed out, for most of the year the refuge's coastal plain is snow-
bound, wind swept, and cold, providing neither recreation nor what many consider scenic
But early notions of the esthetic value this landscape holds went far beyond picturesque or
even monumental viewsheds. It embraced the concept Aldo Leopold advanced as the
EcologicalEsthetic (Leopold 1949). That is, beauty emerges from inherent qualities, deeper and
beyond the visual, experiential components of the surface. A kind of pleasure and satisfaction
emerges from knowing the land is ecologically fit and whole, knowing it continues,
unmanipulated and free, toward its evolutionary destiny. Knowing it is wild.
It is significant to note that the 1950s campaign to establish the Arctic Refuge occurred at a
pivotal period in American environmental history. Leopold's Sand County Almanac had recently
been published. The beginnings of a new ecology-based environmentalism were on the horizon.
The dominant utilitarian conservation paradigm was being questioned by a few far-sighted
scientists. Among them were our founders, whose vision made this area a landmark in the
transition between traditional conservation and the newer environmentalism. The set of values
they spoke for was, in the words of historian Peter Coates, "a seminal expression of a maturing
ecological awareness and a cultural revolution in American attitudes toward wilderness" (Coates
As noted, the refuge founders did not abandon the inherited notion of wilderness as an
historic document of America's past. Rather, they extended this idea of wilderness as a museum
to broaden the concept of historic preservation. This remote wilderness, they believed, could
preserve the kind of conditions and processes that once surrounded and formed us not just as
Americans, but as Homo sapiens. But more expansive still, their perspective of history was
ecocentric and global.
Thus Murie's hope in protecting this place was to preserve "a little portion of our planet left
alone." He referred to the political campaign as the "basic effort to save a part of nature, as
evolution has produced it." Doing so, he said, would help us "understand the basic energies
which through the ages have made this planet habitable" (Murie 1961).
Murie, Collins, and Sumner wrote eloquently about the solid realities of this landscape, and
the cultural, scientific and experiential values they found within. But resonating through their
writings is a more abstract notion, the belief that this place is also the representation of an idea,
or perhaps, an ideal. The Refuge is also a symbolic landscape. A place of meanings, values, and
lessons that transcend its boundaries.
On the occasion of the refuge's 25th anniversary, Lowell Sumner made a comparison with
Statue of Liberty. The refuge also symbolizes freedom he said: "Freedom to continue,
unhindered and forever if we are willing, the particular story of Planet Earth unfolding here." He
said the refuge also served as a place:
where we can learn to appreciate and respect the intricate and
inscrutable unfolding of Earth's destiny when free from meddling human concerts and
the urge to take possession of and use up what we so imperfectly understand (Sumner
We find parallel sentiment in the Wilderness Act of 1964, passed four years after the
refuge's establishment. In what may be the most important phrase of the act, primary author
Howard Zahniser described wilderness as "where the earth and its community of life are
untrammeled by man." By "untrammeled" he meant unrestrained, uncontrolled and
unmanipulated. This recalls the root meaning of the word wilderness: wild, or self-willed, as
opposed to domesticated or tamed.
Like Collins, Sumner and Murie, Zahniser recognized the cultural, recreational and
scientific values of wilderness -- and thought beyond them. "The most profound of all
wilderness values in our modern world," he declared, "is an educational value." In wilderness, he
said, "we sense most keenly our human membership in the whole community of life on the
Earth." A central contribution of wilderness, he believed, was that it served as an aid "in
forsaking human arrogance and courting humility" (Zahniser 1956).
With these insights, we return to the question of relevance.
Looking at the role of the wilderness idea, from its beginnings, through the era of the refuge
campaign, to today's environmental challenges, historian Roderick Nash draws upon these ideas
to state that one of the greatest contributions of wilderness to modern society is symbolic: the act
of preserving wilderness serves to develop and reinforce environmental responsibility.
"Wilderness areas are a gesture of planetary modesty," Nash says. They are "the best places on
which to build a legacy of limitation." He agrees with Guha that the concept of restraint doesn't
come easily for Americans (Nash 1976). Nor does the concept of humility, which as wilderness
researcher William Borrie has pointed out, "is the initial experience that binds people to deeper
values of care and relationship" (Borrie 1995).
As Nash notes, such humility emerges from the knowledge that the primary purpose of such
places is not to produce benefits for our consumption. Rather, as the founders of the refuge
emphasized, this place serves to enhance respect for other life forms and to perpetuate the
ecological and evolutionary heritage all people share with them. As ecologist John Milton said
following his eight-week journey through the refuge, "Its purpose is to be. Man's role should be .
. . let it be" (Milton 1970)
Lowell Sumner compared the Refuge to a national monument most Americans will never
see. But by just knowing it is there, they have a tangible entity to which they can attach national
values they hold dear and believe should be enduring. The Arctic Refuge serves a similar
function for natural values. But for many, it has also become a touchstone to something beyond
the merely human world and its creations, something they believe has a more profound, universal
importance. As such, it is among the world's landscapes that, across cultures and across time,
have served humanity as a sacred place.
One need not backpack or float through the refuge to be touched by the meanings it has
come to represent. Just as oil has emerged as a symbol of our profligacy and ecologically
threatening habits, the successful struggle (so far) to keep oil rigs out of the refuge has come to
symbolize an encouraging capacity for restraint. It is a demonstration and reminder of what we
can do right. Its boundaries represent the limits we are capable of placing on ourselves. It has
become part of what Wallace Stegner summarized as Americans' geography of hope (Stegner
This is what refuge defender Debbie Miller meant when she stated hopefully that
Just knowing the timeless values this place represents have
triumphed over competing economic values it provides the kind of
encouragement and hope we need to address our other environmental threats
Over and over at the Arctic Refuge, we have seen Leopold's esthetic power of wilderness
transform such idealism to action -- the evocation of a force that enlightens and inspires and
motivates. We have seen it compel countless citizens, most of whom will never visit the refuge,
to write and testify. With increasing effectiveness, they remind political leaders and the nation
that oil dollars are a fix that can only be temporary, while this wilderness is a legacy that can
forever be timeless. So we stand committed to the promise -- the promise made by the past
generation to all future generations -- that this remnant landscape will be passed on
undiminished, that its values will endure.
Borrie, W. 1995. Measuring the multiple, deep, and unfolding aspects of the wilderness
experience using the experience sampling method. Ph.D. dissertation, Blacksburg, Virginia:
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Callicott, J. 1991. The wilderness idea revisited; the sustainable development alternative. In
The great new wilderness debate. Eds. J. B. Callicott and M. P. Nelson, 237-266. Athens, GA:
University of Georgia Press
Catton, T. 1997. Inhabited wilderness: Indians, Eskimos, and the national parks in Alaska.
The University of New Mexico Press
Coates, P. 1993. Inside the trans-Alaska pipeline controversy. Fairbanks, AK: University of
Collins, G. and L. Sumner. 1953. The northeast arctic: the last great wilderness. Sierra
ClubBulletin, October: (13) 12-26
Cronon, W. 1995 The trouble with wilderness, or, Getting back to the wrong nature. In The
great new wilderness debate. Eds. J. B. Callicott and M. P. Nelson, 471-499. Athens, GA:
University of Georgia Press
Guha, R. 1989. Radical American environmentalism and wilderness preservation: A third
world critique. In The great new wilderness debate. Eds. J. B. Callicott and M. P. Nelson, 231-
245. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press
Leopold, A. 1949. A sand county almanac and sketches here and there. New York: Oxford
Marshall, R. 1956. Alaska wilderness: Exploring the central brooks range. Berkeley:
University of California Press
Miller, D. 1997. Personal communication
Milton, J. 1970. Nameless valleys, shining mountains: the record of an expedition into the
vanishing wilderness of Alaska's Brooks Range. New York: Walker & Co.
Murie, O. 1961. Wilderness philosophy, science and the Arctic National Wildlife Range. In
Proceedings of the 12th Alaska Science Conference, Fairbanks, AK
Nash, R. 1976. Wilderness: To be or not to be. In W. R. Burch, Jr. (Ed.) Nature and human
nature. Yale University: School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Bulletin No 90. 27-39
New Haven: Yale University
Nash, R. 1982. Wilderness and the American mind. New haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Stegner, W. 1969. The sound of mountain water. Garden City, NY
Sumner, L. 1985. Arctic national wildlife refuge address: 25th anniversary. Unpublished
letter, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge files.
Zahniser, H. 1956. The need for wilderness areas. The living wilderness Winter-Spring,
1956-1957. (59) 37-43
Refuge Information | Wildlife | Habitat | People
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Text and graphics by USFWS staff
Last modified 17 January 2001
Why we archived the ANWR website at Mapcruzin.com
Note: This is the MapCruzin.com archive of the FWS Arctic National Wildlife Refuge website. In December, 2001 FWS took this website offline, making it unavailable to the public. It includes 90 plus pages of information and many maps. As of 2006 the important information contained in this, the original "unsanitized" version of the FWS website, has yet to return to the internet, so we will continue to maintain it here as a permanent archive to help inform activists and concerned citizens. If you find any broken links, please report them to me at [email protected] and I will attempt to make the repairs. January, 2008 update - A small part of the original information that was present in 2001 has made it back into the current ANWR website. There is also an archive that contains a small amount of the original information, but it is not readily available from the main website.
Click here to visit our homepage. Click here for NRDC's message about ANWR from Robert Redford.
For more information on why this website was "pulled," Check here. And, you can also view the maps of caribou calving areas that the FWS did not want you to see here.
January 29, 2008: Visit Our New ANWR News for Updates
This page should be cited as follows:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2001. Potential impacts of proposed oil and gas
development on the Arctic Refuge’s
coastal plain: Historical overview and
issues of concern. Web page of the Arctic National
17 January 2001. http://arctic.fws.gov/issues1.html
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