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Oil Development in the Western Arctic

From the sweeping vistas of the Arctic Refuge to the lush wetlands of the western Arctic, America's Arctic is a place of grand landscapes and rich biological diversity. But these places are threatened by oil and gas exploration and development that already sprawls across more than 1,000 square miles of once-pristine North Slope tundra.

The 23.5-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (Reserve) lies in the northwestern third of America’s Arctic between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. It is a deceptive land, harsh and unforgiving, yet surprisingly fragile. While the landscape at first appears barren and empty, the immense distances and the diminutive vegetation soon come into perspective and display a startling number and diversity of wildlife. White-fronted geese appear as if by magic among the tussocks; arctic poppies nod and dance in the wind; a long-tailed jaeger hovers just at the crest of a low hill before folding its wings and diving toward the tundra. In the distance, what looks like a scattering of stones turns out to be grazing caribou.

Largely unknown and under-appreciated, the Reserve harbors a rich variety of rare habitats and wildlife resources rivaled by very few other parts of the world. The Reserve encompasses a vast area of extensive coastal plain wetlands, rolling foothills and wild rivers. This landscape supports a unique concentration of molting geese, exceptional areas for cliff-nesting raptors, and one of the world’s largest caribou herds.

Teshekpuk Lake

The network of coastal lagoons, deep-water lakes, wet sedge grass meadows and river deltas of the Teshekpuk Lake area create unparalleled wildlife habitat. The Teshekpuk region is home to a 26,000-member caribou herd, and provides habitat for up to 60,000 molting geese each summer. Spectacled and Steller’s eiders frequent the reserve, as does a large proportion of the world’s population of Pacific brant.

Colville River Watershed

One of the most spectacular and varied features in the Reserve is the Colville River. The largest river in America’s Arctic, it supports over twenty species of fish including arctic char, salmon and burbot. Moose browse the banks and grizzlies prowl the gravel bars. A phenomenal number of raptors utilize the Colville River bluff for nesting, including one of the healthiest populations of peregrine falcons in the world. Gyrfalcons, rough-legged hawks and golden eagles are also present. Nests and signs of these birds appear on bluff after bluff.

Utukok Uplands

Comprising more than 4 million acres in the southeast corner of the Reserve, the Utukok Uplands is an essential calving area for the 450,000-member Western Arctic Caribou Herd. Caribou congregate in the hills by the tens of thousands in the spring. Late summer forage is crucial to caribou survival, and the Utukok Uplands provides some of the best in the Arctic.

Threat

Once a pristine landscape, the North Slope now hosts industrial oil development extending across 1,000 square miles of tundra. This vast network of roads, pipelines, gravel pits, waste treatment plants, drill pads and housing facilities, one of the largest industrial complexes on the planet, is visible from space.

Oil and gas development continues to spread across the Arctic landscape. Over 1.5 million acres of the Reserve have been leased for new oil drilling operations. Offshore leasing, exploration, and drilling are being expedited, and new leasing proposals move ever closer to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A balance can be maintained between oil development and wilderness in America’s Arctic, but only if the nation acts to permanently protect its most important wildlife and wilderness resources—the magnificent natural areas of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain, Teshekpuk Lake, the Utukok Uplands and the Colville River Watershed.

Thanks should go to the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and NRDC for research information.

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