Sierra Club Home Page



Alaska Wilderness



Obama Administration Moves to Protect Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Recommends Largest Ever Wilderness Designation to Protect Pristine Habitat

President Obama’s Administration moved to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, widely considered one of the most spectacular and remote areas in the world. The Department of the Interior is releasing a conservation plan for the Refuge that for the first time recommends additional protections, and President Obama announced he will make an official recommendation to Congress to designate core areas of the refuge – including its Coastal Plain – as wilderness, the highest level of protection available to public lands. If Congress chooses to act, it would be the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

The January 2015 action builds upon years of public engagement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) and complete an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as required by law. The plan will guide the Service’s management decisions for the next 15 years.

Based on the best available science and extensive public comment, the Service’s preferred alternative recommends 12.28 million acres – including the Coastal Plain – for designation as wilderness. The Service also recommends four rivers – the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut, and Marsh Fork Canning – for inclusion into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Currently, over 7 million acres of the refuge are managed as wilderness, consistent with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. However, more than 60 percent of the refuge – including the Coastal Plain – does not carry that designation.

Designation as wilderness would protect and preserve the refuge, ensuring the land and water would remain unimpaired for use and enjoyment by future generations. Only Congress has the authority to designate Wilderness areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Recommendations for Wilderness or Wild and Scenic River designations require approval of the Service Director, Secretary of the Interior and the President. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the revised comprehensive conservation plan and final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While the Service is not soliciting further public comment on the revised plan/EIS, it will be available to the public for review for 30 days, after which, the record of decision will be published. At that point, the President will make the formal wilderness recommendation to Congress.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge preserves a unique diversity of wildlife and habitat in a corner of America that is still wild and free,” said Service Director Dan Ashe. “But it faces growing challenges that require a thoughtful and comprehensive management strategy. The incorporation of large portions of the refuge into the National Wilderness Preservation System will ensure we protect this outstanding landscape and its inhabitants for our children and generations that follow.”

The revised plan/EIS addresses a variety of issues, including the protection of wildlife populations and their habitats, opportunities for fish- and wildlife-dependent recreation, subsistence needs of local inhabitants, and other public uses. The plan also strengthens wildlife and habitat monitoring, as well as the monitoring of public use of the refuge so as to better respond to changing conditions on the landscape, particularly those associated with climate change.

The 19.8 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to the most diverse wildlife in the arctic, including caribou, polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. More than 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species and 42 species of fish call the vast refuge home. Lagoons, beaches, saltmarshes, tundra and forests make up the remote and undisturbed wild area that spans five distinct ecological regions.

The refuge holds special meaning to Alaska Natives, having sustained their lives and culture for thousands of years. The Gwich’in people refer to the Coastal Plain of the refuge as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” reflecting the area’s importance to their community, maintaining healthy herds of caribou and an abundance of other wildlife.

More information will be available at

Continuing work to keep Arctic development free

Alaska Wilderness League along with the groups listed below have been mobilizing and organizing activists online and offline to add their names to the push to protect the Arctic Ocean from Shell and other Big Oil companies – and the momentum is working, as Shell has already cancelled plans to drill this year after 12 months of errors, mishaps, and near-disasters, and Conoco Phillips has cancelled plans to begin to pursue Arctic drilling.

An oil spill in the Arctic Ocean could devastate human and wildlife communities alike. President Obama cannot allow drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Shell’s long list of setbacks and failures – coupled with the extreme risk for oil spills and further climate destruction in an already fragile ecosystem – provides overwhelming evidence that the oil and gas industry is not prepared to operate safely in the Arctic Ocean. President Obama should prioritize protecting the Arctic as part of his climate legacy and not approve any further offshore drilling in the region.

Alaska Wilderness League has called on President Obama to begin his climate legacy by saying no to Arctic Ocean drilling. You can add your name to our petition here:

The Coalition Released the Following Statement:

“For hundreds of thousands of Americans, seeing Shell’s drilling rig run aground in the harsh Arctic weather last December was the last straw. The outpouring of action since then is a loud and clear signal that President Obama should suspend all risky and dangerous drilling activities in the Arctic Ocean.

In one year, one of Shell’s ships caught fire, rigs lost control, ran aground, and became the subject of criminal investigations, proving time and time again companies are not prepared for the Arctic. On March 14, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar admitted that ‘Shell screwed up’ and announced it would not be allowed back into the Arctic without major changes. The nearly 2 million Americans who have spoken up recognize that if the largest and wealthiest company in the world cannot figure out how to drill safely in the Arctic, all of this risky and dangerous drilling should be put on hold immediately.

Now, it’s time the Obama administration recognizes the same thing and reflects it in policy. The administration should not make any new decisions until it has completed a more thorough review of all drilling operations in the Arctic, implemented the most rigorous standards and determined whether and under what conditions to allow offshore drilling. As nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell should prioritize these challenges, and make sure that the Interior Department does not make the same mistakes again, acting immediately to put a pause in the Arctic until this in-depth review is complete.

The threat to America’s Arctic from drilling doesn't just stop at spills and disasters, and the destruction of one of our most pristine places. Dredging up more dirty fuels and then burning them into our atmosphere is a one-two punch for America’s Arctic, destroying one of our most pristine places and making the climate crisis that is melting the region even worse. The administration can’t build a climate change legacy while drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

In one year, Shell proved beyond a doubt that no Big Oil company is prepared to drill in the Arctic and the potential threats this destructive practice would pose are numerous. But, if the Obama administration needed another reason to rethink the United States’ Arctic Ocean drilling program, they now have nearly 2 million more of them.”

The coalition is made up of the following organizations:

Sierra Club – Alaska Wilderness League – Center for Biological Diversity – Friends of the Earth – Greenpeace – Earthjustice – National Audubon Society – Natural Resources Defense Council – The Wilderness Society – League of Conservation Voters – CREDO


UPDATE:  September 17, 2012

Shell Abandons Plans to Drill in the Arctic this Year: Oil Giant Still Ill-Equipped to Handle Extreme Arctic Conditions

Washington, DC -- Royal Dutch Shell has announced that it will not move forward with plans to drill for oil in the Arctic's Beaufort and Chukchi Seas this year. Known as the Polar Bear Seas, these waters are home to the entire US population of polar bears and serve as an important migration route for bowhead and beluga whales. They are also home to some of the most extreme and dangerous conditions on the planet, making drilling a risky proposition.

In response Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune issued the following statement:

"Shell's announcement is recognition of what we've been saying all along-the company cannot safely drill in our Arctic waters. Shell's disturbing trend of failing to meet safety and pollution requirements comes against a backdrop of shifting ice floes and other reminders of the dangers and difficulty of drilling in the Arctic.

The extreme conditions of the Arctic have resulted in a delicate natural balance that has allowed wildlife and local communities to survive for generations. Oil drilling here could damage Arctic waters and wildlife for decades and end Alaska Natives' ancient subsistence way of life.

Realizing the dangers of drilling in this pristine and harsh environment, more than a million people have spoken out in opposition to Shell's drilling plans over the past months. The truth is that we don't need to open this irreplaceable area to drilling. Instead we should focus on making our cars cleaner and more efficient, expanding our transportation choices and investing in clean energy innovation.

The Polar Bear Seas, special places in the Western Arctic and the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be protected, not given away to Big Oil. "


  Shell Receives Approval to Start Arctic Drilling Prep Work

Royal Dutch Shell today received permission to begin preparations to drill in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea despite the fact that its oil spill response vessel is not yet certified or in place.

In response Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Arctic Program Director, issued the following statement.

“The reality is that we don’t know what Shell will encounter when they begin drilling to lay the groundwork for wells in the Polar Bear Seas. Allowing the company to move ahead without a vital piece of its oil spill response plan unnecessarily increases the risk to Arctic waters, wildlife and communities.

Shell’s inability to meet the safety and pollution requirements it agreed to presents a disturbing trend. The company must be held accountable at every step in the process. It should not be allowed to get a jumpstart on drilling or extend its drilling season simply because of poor preparation.”



The Bullying Congressman vs. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A hearing about drilling in the Arctic Refuge got pretty heated when Rep. Don Young (R-AK) called testimony about protecting the Arctic Refuge “garbage” and said that those who care about conserving this critical wild place were “elitists.” Professor Douglas Brinkley, an acclaimed historian and Arctic Refuge expert, stood up to a Congressional bully – you can watch their exchange here.

This has made pretty big news in Washington – which is great for the Arctic Refuge: The more people who see this video, the more people will understand the biggest threat to our nation’s greatest wilderness icon is Big Oil and their friends in Congress. Now, we’re hoping to get this out far and wide—and hopefully get this footage picked up by more key media outlets.

There are some places in this country that define what it means to be American—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska is one of those places. For the past 50 years, our country has remained committed to protecting one of our last wild places – and it’s great to see people stand up for those values in the halls of Congress!

Watch the video and share it with your friends.



Arctic Ocean

The Arctic Ocean is one of the most productive, fragile, and least understood marine ecosystems in the world. Unfortunately, it is also one of the world’s most threatened marine environments. Made up of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, America’s Arctic Ocean is facing accelerating and dramatic changes due to climate change, along with proposals for massive and risky oil and gas development.


Arctic Refuge

UPDATE:  U.S. Congress, CONSERVATION Groups call for the strongest possible protections for the arctic national wildlife refuge - 57 Members of U.S. Congress Send Letter to President Obama Calling for the Strongest Protections of the Iconic Arctic Refuge on its 50th Anniversary - In early October, Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) led a letter, signed by 56 other Members of the House of Representatives to President Obama, calling for the strongest possible protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge during this historic year – the 50th anniversary of its original creation. Despite numerous battles to open the Refuge for drilling throughout the years, strong bi-partisan support has kept the Refuge protected. The House Members stated in the letter that, “now is the time to grant the Refuge the strong, long-term protections it deserves so that we can pass this unspoiled American treasure to our children and grandchildren.”  

A recent poll shows that a vast majority of Americans support commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Refuge by granting it stronger protections. The poll showed that more than 60 percent of Americans would like to see the Arctic Refuge recognized at a level on par with other pristine landmarks such as the Grand Canyon, Muir Woods, and Yellowstone.

As Representative Markey, chairman of the twin energy committees in the U.S. Congress said, “The BP Deepwater Horizon spill of nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico this summer was one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation’s history. The BP spill is a stark reminder that when it comes to oil drilling there is no such thing as ‘immaculate extraction.’ On the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Arctic Refuge, the time has come to grant this unique and pristine American treasure the strong protections that it deserves.”

UPDATE:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on September 27, 2010,  that it would exercise its authority under federal law to conduct a wilderness review for nearly all non-Wilderness areas of the Arctic Refuge, including the Coastal Plain, as part of the Comprehensive Conservation Planning (CCP) process.  This will determine if these areas should be designated as Wilderness. While the Arctic Refuge is the only National Wildlife Refuge in the United States that was created specifically for its wilderness values, a full wilderness study of the Coastal Plain has never been conducted.  The review was scheduled to be released in May 2012.  It has not yet been released.

Western Arctic/The Reserve

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is one of Alaska’s best kept secrets and one of our nation’s greatest natural treasures. The administration and Congress must work to keep important habitat areas within the Reserve protected from destructive industrial development.

UPDATE:  According to the USGS, “The estimated volume of undiscovered oil is significantly lower than estimates released in 2002, owing primarily to recent exploration drilling that revealed an abrupt transition from oil to gas and reduced reservoir quality in the Alpine sandstone 15–20 miles west of the giant Alpine oil field. The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA) has been the focus of oil exploration during the past decade, stimulated by the mid-1990s discovery of the adjacent Alpine field—the largest onshore oil discovery in the United States during the past 25 years. Recent activities in NPRA, including extensive 3–D seismic surveys, six Federal lease sales totaling more than $250 million in bonus bids, and completion of more than 30 exploration wells on Federal and Native lands, indicate in key formations more gas than oil and poorer reservoir quality than anticipated. In the absence of a gas pipeline from northern Alaska, exploration has waned and several petroleum companies have relinquished assets in the NPRA.”  For more see here

Arctic Ocean

On July 21, 2010, a federal court judge in Alaska cancelled a Bush-era lease sale that opened critically important waters within the Arctic's Chukchi Sea to dangerous oil and gas drilling. The court agreed with Alaska Natives and Alaska Wilderness League that the federal government had failed to consider the environmental impacts of drilling on the fragile Arctic ecosystem before allowing oil companies to purchase leases.

As Caroline Cannon, president of the Native Village of Point Hope, an Inupiat Eskimo whaling community that survives off the bounty of the Chukchi Sea, told the Associated Press: "So little is known about our Arctic Ocean. Scientifically, they have not enough data. [It's] so good ... that the world has heard us, in a sense."

This ruling is the latest in a string of decisions showing that our nation's proposed Arctic drilling program is fundamentally flawed. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar must now take the time to gather crucial information about this unique, fragile marine environment and ensure that the Arctic remains a pristine, abundant place. As always, the League will keep you updated on opportunities to advocate for our one and only Arctic ecosystem.   Find out more.


UPDATE:  The Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in August 2011 released a Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Chukchi Sea Oil and Gas Lease Sale 193, held in February 2008. The Final SEIS provides additional environmental analysis that supplements the review originally completed as part of the planning for Lease Sale 193. Specifically, the Final SEIS addresses concerns raised by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in its July 21, 2010, decision remanding Lease Sale 193 back to the agency, incorporates additional public comment, and includes a new analysis of the environmental impacts of a hypothetical Very Large Oil Spill (VLOS) scenario.  Find out more.



Bristol Bay Home of Salmon, Gold and Copper

Alaska's Bristol Bay is a place of bounty and balance. It is blessed with more than half of all wild salmon in the world!

A report by the University of Washington reveals the intricacy of the ecosystem, embodied in its sustainable fishery: salmon populations have adapted to each individual stream that feeds Bristol Bay, their cycles of ebb and flow continually self-regulating the species. A truly natural blessing!

But, Bristol Bay also has an abundance of another kind: minerals. The proposed Pebble Mine development, if built, would be one of the world's largest gold and copper mines. Positioned near vital watersheds and salmon streams, Pebble Mine and other hard-rock mining threaten the natural balance here. Damaging even a few streams with toxic mining runoff would disrupt the natural diversity of the ecosystem, permanently upsetting this natural system.

Multiple species of wild salmon thrive in Bristol Bay and this natural abundance has fostered a truly remarkable natural resource. As salmon journey upstream to spawn in the nutrient rich waters, they replenish the streams with minerals from the ocean and fertilize the trees as feeding wildlife sow them about the forest. It is a truly balanced cycle.

These iconic salmon also yield vital human benefits, supporting local communities, subsistence cultures, world-class angling, recreational boating and fishing, and a healthy food source for the entire country!

Earlier in the year, the U.S. Department of the Interior rightfully prevented offshore drilling in the bay, calling it a "national treasure." But the toxic threat of hard-rock mining onshore still threatens to tip the balance. The Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) must do its part to protect Bristol Bay.












Last updated 01.26.15

back to top


A Refuge Trek

Phyllis Mains, a former Iowa Chapter ExCom member, recently backpacked the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Read her story. 



Schedule an Arctic Presentation

Iowa Chapter member Phyllis Mains traveled to Alaska and hiked in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  You can see some of her magnificent photographs here... 

Check out the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve on Google Earth



NOAA's Arctic Report Card: Update for 2014






Polar Bear Distribution Maps










Sierra Club