Marking a Milestone for a Special Place

Polar bear

ON DECEMBER 6, the United States will celebrate a conservation milestone. Fifty years ago on that date, for the first time in the nation’s history, U.S. authorities gave federal protection to an entire ecosystem. Located in northeastern Alaska, the place we now call the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans five different ecological zones and provides safe habitat for hundreds of species, including the highest density of land-denning polar bears in the country.

Today, however, the nation’s largest wildlife refuge is more renowned for a decades-long controversy over whether to open its coastal plain to oil development than for the biological reasons it was established. But those reasons are not lost on Michael Engelhard, an Alaska-based author and wilderness guide who has visited the refuge on several occasions. In the December/January issue of National Wildlife, he describes his love for what he calls “the land of stunted—or no—trees” and explains why global warming could pose an even greater threat to the region than drilling.

In the five decades since the refuge was created, Engelhard reports, winter temperatures in Arctic Alaska have risen by as much as 7 degrees F, and the ramifications of that increase on the area’s natural resources and environment could be enormous. To find out more, see his article “The Arctic Refuge Turns 50.”