Some Places Should Be Left Unspoiled

A guest post by Scott Freeman, Biological Sciences Technician

I’m back in town after a busy and interesting 2 months working in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s an amazing place and an amazing experience to have the opportunity to work with animals in such a beautiful and wild area. It’s also an experience that may soon be a thing of the past. The area in which I was working might be opened to oil exploration this year if both the House and Senate can agree on a budget resolution containing language to this effect.

My experiences don’t change my opinion on this issue, but they do give me a much better appreciation for what is at stake, and a sense of obligation to share my experiences. The coastal plain is an important and fragile place, one that supports a wide variety of wildlife, one that is largely unspoiled, and one that is far more valuable as a wilderness and wildlife refuge than as a source of oil. Flying out of our field camp gave me a great appreciation for the contrast between protected land in the Arctic Refuge, and North Slope lands that have been developed. As soon as you cross the Refuge boundary the tundra is scarred with vehicle tracks, evidence of past oil exploration activity.

If you were to fly west along the northern coast of Alaska from the Canadian border, you wouldn’t see much land outside of the Refuge that doesn’t show impacts of drilling. Directly west of the Refuge is state land, much of it leased out for oil extraction. An extensive web of roads and pipelines connects 27 producing oil fields. This industrial zone consumes 1,000 square miles of pond-specked tundra. West of the oil fields lies the vast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. This Indiana-sized area is also on the table for petroleum exploration and future development.

No doubt these industrial areas still support a lot of wildlife. But development activities condition predators to garbage dumps, and disturb the wary wolverines, yellow-billed loons, and sensitive caribou with calves. This is the way of humans, to modify our environment for our benefit, exploit its resources, turn it into something tamer, different. There are good reasons to do this, and good reasons to recognize that we should leave some places wild and unspoiled, such as the Arctic Refuge.