Fifty Years of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Monday, December 6, marked 50 years since the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (then known as the Arctic National Wildlife Range) was established under the Eisenhower administration. It’s a milestone that once again brings attention to the need to safeguard this iconic natural landscape from the destruction that would inevitably result from oil and gas development.  The Arctic Refuge deserves protection for ecological, scientific, cultural, aesthetic, and even spiritual reasons.  It also deserves protection for the value it gives to the larger system of which it is a part.

With more than 550 refuges, thousands of waterfowl production areas, and about 150 million acres, the National Wildlife Refuge System is the largest system of protected land and water in the world.  Yet beyond a tautological definition, most Americans would be hard pressed to explain what the National Wildlife Refuge System is – that is, if they had even heard of it at all.

Despite this, the Arctic Refuge is one of the world’s best-known protected areas.  As one of the largest and most recognizable unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, the Arctic Refuge provides us the opportunity to put a face to the name, ‘Refuge.’  It gives an identity to the Refuge System and, in turn, a reason to care about it.  In the face of a $3.7 billion backlog and tightening budgets, it needs all the support it can get.

As one of our last large, intact landscapes, where ecological processes have persisted largely without human interference and evolution carries on unchallenged, the Arctic Refuge teaches and inspires us.  And as the National Wildlife Refuge System formulates a new vision for the future, it represents the possibility.  Rallying around the Arctic Refuge can help garner strength for the countless other unique and remarkable units that the Refuge System protects.

The importance of the Arctic Refuge can be evidenced by the fact that its 50th anniversary has been so highly celebrated, with a play, a gala, a new film from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a presidential proclamation all marking the occasion.  In the fight to keep this treasured place free from oil and gas development for another 50 years, protecting the Arctic Refuge and the National Wildlife Refuge System will go hand in hand.

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Julie Kates is the Refuge Associate, Federal Lands Program for Defenders of Wildlife. Julie focuses on developing and implementing programs to enhance the conservation of biodiversity within the National Wildlife Refuge System, as well as supporting Defenders’ climate change adaptation work on federal lands.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.