The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also known as ANWR, is a wildlife sanctuary that has become a significant cornerstone of Alaskan culture and American culture at large. Created in 1903, ANWR is by far the biggest wildlife refuge in the U.S. and one of the biggest in the world. It consists of over 19 million acres of land in northeastern Alaska, much of it within the Arctic Circle. As a wildlife preserve, its purpose is to provide a safe haven for Alaska’s animals and plants, guarding against human encroachment.

In recent times, ANWR has become known for attempts by oil developers to exploit potential oil and gas deposits in the area. However, the significance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is far more than this. Read on to learn more about the history of ANWR and its importance to Alaskan and American culture.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

While native Alaskans have resided in the area that would become ANWR for thousands of years, large-scale settlement of Alaska did not begin until the late 19th century. The Klondike gold rush inspired thousands of people to migrate to Alaska and the Canadian territory of Yukon, which resulted in considerable pollution and ruin to the area’s natural environment. In response to human development harming ecosystems across the U.S., the conservationist movement was formed in the early 1900’s to protect areas of natural beauty from continued human development.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1903 as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The brainchild of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was an outdoorsman and conservationist, Roosevelt was worried about the displacement and destruction of wildlife and natural wonders that had occurred with the Industrial Revolution and the natural resource rushes of the 1800’s. The National Wildlife Refuge System sought to cordon off areas from human encroachment, preserving wildlife, flora, and land in America’s rural regions.

A further victory for conservationists concerned with Alaskan wildlife occurred in 1918 with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Negotiated between the U.S. and the U.K. (which handled Canada’s foreign relations at the time), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protected the rights of Alaskan birds and banned hunting them without a waiver. This act formed the basis of how wildlife in Alaska is protected to the modern day. Later, in 1960, Secretary of the Interior Fred Andrew Seaton would declare ANWR to be a protected area.

The discovery of oil and natural gas in Alaska’s North Slope in the 1960’s rejuvenated interest in natural resource extraction in ANWR due to the fact that it covers a large part of the North Slope. However, development has been thwarted due to considerable opposition from both Alaskans and environmentalists, who want to keep ANWR as a safe zone for threatened wildlife. Another victory for conservationists occurred in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which closed ANWR off to human development.

For now, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains off-limits to oil extraction and natural resources development. While there are a number of Alaskan Native villages within ANWR, these villages were grandfathered in due to the fact that they were present prior to ANWR’s formation; no new villages or developments are permitted. The largest settlement within ANWR is Kaktovik, an Iñupiat village of 258 located along the North Slope. There are no roads connecting ANWR to the greater North American road network, nor are there roads connecting villages themselves; the only way to travel around the region is via air or sea. However, it is possible to enter ANWR on foot due to the Dalton Highway being located just to its west.

ANWR is noted for the diversity of wildlife within its borders, with six different ecozones; indeed, it has a greater variety of wildlife than any other park or refuge in Alaska. Common animals found within ANWR include Dall sheep, polar bears, caribou, grizzly bears, golden eagles, Dolly Varden trout, and more. The southern portion of the Refuge largely consists of taiga and is noted for its frequent forest fires, which are caused by lightning storms.

Oil exploitation within ANWR remains a hot-button issue, and oil companies seek to exploit deposits along ANWR’s portion of the North Slope. Estimates suggest that anywhere from 5 to 16 billion barrels of oil and natural gas are contained with ANWR’s boundaries, with the bulk located in an area of the North Slope referred to as the “1002 area.” Development remains stalled due to the prerequisite of Congressional approval, concerns over the profitability of oil drilling due to global oil prices, and fears that human development would cause long-term damage to ANWR’s wildlife.

Climate change is also a major concern for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The rising levels of the Arctic Ocean are a threat to ANWR’s wildlife due to the erosion of coastlines and destruction of natural habitats. One major reason why oil exploitation has not commenced in ANWR is due to concerns that it would worsen the effects that climate change is already having on the area. Oil development is also opposed by many Alaskans, who have come to see ANWR as a symbol of the state’s culture, natural beauty, and breadth of wildlife that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an important cornerstone of Alaska’s physical landscape and is one of the most significant wildlife sanctuaries in the world. With millions of acres of unspoiled natural beauty, it has become a major symbol of Alaska’s landscape and the importance of preserving and protecting rare and endangered species within the Arctic. While political shifts in the future could result in ANWR being opened for oil drilling, ANWR as a whole serves as an important tool in preserving the ecosystem of Alaska.

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