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Refuge Information | Wildlife | Habitat | People
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Why we archived the ANWR website at

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 Wildlife Refuge.

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 benefits?

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 people.

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 this heritage.

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 beauty.

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 1993).

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 the 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 1985).

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 1969).

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 (Miller 1997)

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.

Literature Cited

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 Alaska Press

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 University Press.

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

Refuges: where wildlife comes first

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

Note: This is the 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 Wildlife Refuge,
       Fairbanks, Alaska. 17 January 2001.

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