I can still remember the first time I saw tracks left behind by seismic testing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
It was the mid-1990s and I had been guiding a group of people on a float trip across the coastal plain of the refuge towards the Arctic Ocean. After seven days of traveling through the wildest country I’d ever seen, I was out on a late evening walk and I saw what were clearly tire tracks crossing the tundra.
I couldn’t believe it. We were hundreds of miles from the nearest road or motorized vehicle, but there they were.
For those who’ve never been to the Arctic Refuge, it can be hard to imagine a place so far removed from the busy streets and office buildings most of us encounter every day.
One of the world’s last intact ecosystems, the Arctic Refuge is home to some of the most abundant and diverse wildlife anywhere in the world, including more than 200 wildlife species. Its coastal plain is where the porcupine caribou herd travel to birth their young and is the most important denning site for polar bears in the United States.
The 19 million acre refuge is one of the few places in the United States that has never seen the impact of Western society. There are no roads, buildings, or permanent structures of any kind there. For decades, this special place has been protected from industrial activity.
And yet, to this day, tracks left from seismic exploration that took place in the 1980s are still visible. Seeing this damage was jarring, to say the least — and it could soon get much worse.
After Congressional Republicans passed legislation opening up the refuge for oil and gas drilling last year, the Trump administration has rushed to sell off the coastal plain to the industry on an accelerated schedule.
The good news is that this push has been met with near-universal resistance. Hundreds of people turned out to protest the Department of the Interior’s hearings on the plan, and hundreds of thousands more submitted public comments opposing drilling.
This spring, a group of some of the world’s most significant investors urged oil and gas companies and major banks not to initiate any oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge. And legislation has already been introduced in Congress to walk back this dangerous plan.
Actual oil development in the Arctic Refuge could be years away, if it happens at all. But in the meantime, the administration is already getting ready to approve a permit for destructive seismic exploration, which could start as soon as December of this year.
Allowing this seismic testing to go forward would do severe and permanent damage to this sensitive wilderness before a single drill rig has ever been permitted.
Not only would it leave lasting scars on this treasured landscape, seismic activity would also threaten critical habitat for polar bears. The extensive noise, vibration, and disturbance could cause mother bears to flee their dens, leaving cubs to starve to death and this already threatened population to decline even further.
The Arctic Refuge is one of our last links to the unspoiled natural world and a source of hope for future generations — even for those who may never set foot there. I’ve been lucky to spend time in this one-of-a-kind place, and it’s given me a first-hand understanding of all that’s at stake in this dangerous push to open it up to the fossil fuel industry.
Time is running out to protect the Arctic. We must all speak out to ensure that this administration’s greed and recklessness don’t leave permanent scars in America’s refuge.
Dan Ritzman directs the Sierra Club’s Lands Water Wildlife Campaign. He’s been leading rafting trips through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for 25 years.