The Biden Administration Protects Millions of Acres of Arctic Alaska

The new Special Areas Rule in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska could boost biodiversity and empower Indigenous Peoples to defend the lands they’ve relied on for generations.

Aerial view of the National Petroleum Reserve in northwestern Alaska

A river snakes through the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.


Mark Newman/Getty Images

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced today that it’s permanently protecting some 13 million acres (about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined) of wildlands in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) and also finalized a rule that could help safeguard even more of it. Critically, the government intends for the new Special Areas Rule to serve as a pathway for the Indigenous communities who depend on the region’s natural resources to protect their subsistence rights and cultural traditions.

As the impacts of global warming and oil and gas development radically reshape the landscape and lives of the communities and wild denizens of the Far North, these actions offer a chance to slow the pace of change.

“Our lands and waters are a beautiful place on the horizon, and we have the bounty of renewal for every continent for our birds,” says Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, executive director of Grandmothers Growing Goodness, an environmental justice group dedicated to protecting Inupiat culture. Future generations need to rely on these places too, she adds, “as our elders showed us.” 

A herd of caribou running across a grassy field as the sun sets in Alaska

In 2022, population numbers for the Western Arctic caribou herd hit their lowest point in 40 years.


Mark Newman/Getty Images

The Arctic under threat

Each spring, Indigenous villages at the outskirts of the NPR-A await sights of one of the Arctic’s heartiest creatures, the caribou. Right now, these shaggy, long-legged reindeer are making their way through the spongy soils of Alaska’s North Slope. It’s calving season, so many of the animals are heavy with pregnant bellies. Following routes ingrained in their collective memory, some of the herds have traveled as far as 400 miles from the southern side of the central Brooks Range, where the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sits. The caribou arrive on the rapidly flowering grounds of the NPR-A, ready to rear their young and fatten up on cotton grass and other tundra blooms.

In recent decades, the journey has grown increasingly treacherous. When President Biden approved the massive Willow oil drilling project in the NPR-A last year, the caribou—among myriad Arctic species—were already suffering in a region that’s warming four times faster than the rest of the globe. Climate effects have touched on everything from the stability of migration corridors as sea ice disappears to the ballooning populations of pesky mosquitoes, which can uproot caribou from their feeding grounds and cut them off from the nourishment they need to prepare for their next trip.

On this landscape, of course, they aren’t alone in facing climate-fueled food insecurity. The caribou are a sacred food to the region’s Indigenous communities, who are not only concerned about declining caribou populations but also about the very ability to preserve the meat from their hunts. The thawing of permafrost is causing the food that the Inupiat once could store year-round in underground ice cellars to rot.

“Will we get our foods in the places we need them to be in and in the times we need them?” Ahtuangaruak asks. “Will they be in the quantities we need and will they be healthy for our families’ needs?”

What is the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska?

In 1923, seeking an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy, President Warren G. Harding signed an executive order establishing the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4. (Harding’s was the same administration embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved dubious oil company transactions on public lands elsewhere in the American West.) Despite the original intention, the reserve has remained largely undeveloped, and drilling there has been hotly contested for decades.

In 1976, Congress passed the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act, which transferred all 23.5 million acres of the reserve to the BLM for oversight and renamed it the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. At the same time, Congress tasked the agency with ensuring “maximum protection” of areas identified as having “any significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, or historical or scenic value.” ​​(Management plans issued every five years designate such areas.)

The BLM has since held various lease tract sales in sections of the NPR-A, but until recently, drilling has been kept at bay. In 2006, NRDC and its partners thwarted the Bush administration’s attempt to lease some of the reserve’s most ecologically sensitive lands. The Trump administration sought to open a whopping 18.6 million acres, or 82 percent, of the reserve to oil and gas leasing, on top of the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—two moves the Biden administration overturned in 2022. Though largely pristine, more than half of the NPR-A is currently open to leasing, and pipelines and roads snake through the reserve, as oil exploration operations expand.

For Bobby McEnaney, director of land conservation in NRDC’s Nature program, the names and artificial borders for different areas of the Far North cloud the reality of life on the ground. The NPR-A and the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to its east belong to a vast, interconnected landscape, what McEnaney calls “America’s Arctic,” forming the largest intact ecosystem in the United States. “It attracts an extraordinary amount of biodiversity,” he says. “You're talking about one of the largest migrating caribou herds in the world, polar bears, the migratory bird spectacle. And it's largely absent any human infrastructure—soul-destroying infrastructure.”

Two polar bears standing close together on a pebble beach during sunset A brown, black, and white bird standing on the ground next to purple flowers A bearded seal swimming in arctic waters

Clockwise from left: Polar bears rely on seasonal sea ice to hunt and survive; a semipalmated plover is one of the millions of shorebirds that migrate to the NPR-A from all over the world to breed; bearded seals, the largest of Arctic seals, frequent the Chukchi and Beaufort seas on the NPR-A’s northern coast.

Credit: 1)

Mark Newman/Getty Images

; 2)

P. de Graaf/Getty Images

; 3)

Michel Denijs/Getty Images

The North Slope’s Teshekpuk Lake attracts millions of birds from all over the globe—some from points as far south as Tierra del Fuego, Chile, at the bottom of the Pacific Flyway—to breed in its wetlands. Moose graze the banks of the area’s Colville and Ikpikpuk rivers, and offshore, bearded seals, walruses, belugas, and bowhead whales ply the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. 

Those who stand to profit from drilling the Arctic, however, benefit from depicting the wildlife refuge and the petroleum reserve as discrete places. Dividing them up this way allows the oil and gas industry to obscure the collective impact of their projects. “We need to think about it holistically,” McEnaney says. “The changes that are happening are grim and profound.”

For instance, biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game found that the Western Arctic caribou herd in the summer of 2022 had shrunken by almost 13 percent from the year prior. The numbers plummeted from 188,000 to 164,000, the smallest documented population in 40 years. Further analysis showed that the survival rate of adult females in particular was down—a concern for the population’s ability to bounce back.

While the exact causes of the caribou’s decline remain unclear, members of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group—which includes hunters, conservationists, hunting guides, and reindeer herders—suspect that changing snow patterns and food abundance may be disrupting the animals’ seasonal life cycles in some way. In a letter included in the recap of the group’s most recent meeting, Vern Cleveland, the group’s chair and mayor of the village of Noorvik in northwestern Alaska, wrote, “I don’t know how the caribou survive with all of the rain we have had. Right now (April 2023), in Noorvik, we have three or four inches of ice on top of the snow. It must be difficult for the caribou to dig through.”

A pipeline extends over a partially snowy landscape in Alaska

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System cuts through the Alaskan tundra.


Patrick J. Endres/Getty Images

What the Special Areas Rule could do

The Special Areas Rule updates nearly 50-year-old regulations regarding how the BLM strikes a balance between oil and gas development and conservation, which the BLM says would allow it “to more effectively respond to changing conditions in the NPR-A.” The rule would also provide a process for groups to nominate areas of the NPR-A for protection (similar to the public input process that led to the designation of Bears Ears and other national monuments), allowing the public to engage in conservation in a more democratic way.

Last year, Grandmothers Growing Goodness submitted comments to the BLM detailing steps the agency could take to minimize the damage of the Willow project on local caribou herds, subsistence hunting, and the landscape itself. The recommendations included measures such as minimizing seismic exploration that could disrupt the spring caribou migration, noting that “important migration pathways will be blocked by a steady stream of industrial traffic.” 

As a whole, seismic surveys are very disruptive, often entailing enormous vehicles that stop every 20 to 65 feet to vibrate the earth in search of oil deposits hidden below the surface. Such operations may cause migrating pregnant caribou to head to inferior calving grounds where there is less to eat and less protection from predators. “Each time someone loses an opportunity to get a caribou, they return without food to a community that is already food insecure,” noted Ahtuangaruak in her public comments to the BLM. Nevertheless, the agency allowed oil giant ConocoPhillips to proceed with its seismic survey last winter. 

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak from Grandmother’s Growing Goodness in front of the U.S. Capitol Building A man and young boy standing on a grassy hill overlooking an Alaskan landscape

Left: Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Inupiat activist with the environmental justice group Grandmothers Growing Goodness. Right: Bob Gilbert stands with his grandson, Victor, while looking for moose outside Vashrąįį K'ǫǫ near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Credit: 1)

Courtesy of Rosemary Ahtuangaruak

; 2)

Keri Oberly

But now, the federal government seems ready to listen. The BLM’s new rule aims to ensure the agency not only solicits but also reflects local input in its management of the NPR-A. It also compels the agency to protect the Special Areas it designates using the best available scientific information, which includes Indigenous traditional knowledge. This measure is particularly promising given the fact that scientists have consistently shown that wildlife has a better shot at survival in areas managed by Indigenous Peoples.

To reinforce the fact that oil and gas development in the region does not align with U.S. climate goals, NRDC is helping to calculate more accurate emissions projections of prospective drilling projects. In the meantime, the new rules, when combined with recent conservation victories in the far corners of Alaska (from Tongass National Forest to the Bristol Bay watershed), are giving the people living on this climate frontline a chance to defend themselves against the very industries that would exacerbate this global crisis. There is so much at stake, Ahtuangaruak reminds us—nothing less than “life, health, and safety, and the importance of tradition and culture.”

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