What is the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) & Why is it Important?

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A Brief History of ANWR

The Arctic National Wildlife Range was set-aside in 1960 and included 8.9 million acres. In 1980, this range was expanded to 19.8 million acres as a result of the passing of the Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which also designated 8.6 million acres as wilderness. This act also renamed the area the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. ANWR was established with international implications. The refuge borders Canada’s Northern Yukon National Park, providing contiguous areas for the migration routes of many animals, including the porcupine caribou herd.

The Coastal Plain: A Rich Ecosystem

ANWR is a biologically rich and diverse ecosystem, containing many important species of mammals. Of particular interest due to the conflict over its designation as a potential site for oil drilling, the coastal plain (also known as the 1002 area) is an area of critical importance. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, there are as many as 130,000 Porcupine caribou that migrate more than 700 miles from their southern winter territory to their calving grounds on the coastal plain. These caribou rely on this coastal area for food and relief from predators in addition to a site for reproduction. This makes their annual migration an essential part of their life history. The remote nature of ANWR and absence of people, make it an ideal breeding grown, as calving caribou are sensitive to humans.

Like caribou, female polar bears rely on the coastal regions of ANWR for bearing cubs. Also, other mammals including a small population of muskoxen live in ANWR. Reintroduced in 1969 after having been nearly decimated by hunters in the 19th century, these animals live year round on the coastal plain. For at least part of the year, the coastal plain of ANWR is also home to such diverse species as wolves, moose, wolverines, snow geese, tundra swans, and peregrine falcons.

What is the Controversy?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been a source of controversy for many years. The major players are environmentalists who seek to preserve this region as wilderness; the state of Alaska, which funds major portions of its activities with dividends from oil production; Alaska residents who receive a dividend payment from oil revenues; oil companies that want to drill in the refuge; and members of Congress who see the oil reserves in the region as important economic and political issues.

Alaska has no sales or income tax so the state relies on oil for over 75 percent of its revenue. Also, every Alaskan citizen receives a share in the revenue made by oil companies. While these important revenues cause many Alaskans to favor opening area 1002 for drilling, many citizens oppose it for its potential catastrophic impact on wildlife. For exactly how drilling will affect wildlife and the environment of ANWR, be sure to read the article: Will Drilling Effect the Alaskan Refuge?