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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains vital habitat for polar bears who rely on the border of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. (AlaskaStock / Corbis)

Fifty Years of Arctic National Wildlife Preservation

Biologist George Schaller on the debate over ANWR conservation and why the refuge must be saved

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This winter marks the 50th anniversary of the designation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a 19-million-acre refuge in Alaska that runs for 190 miles along the state’s eastern border with Canada before meeting the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea. The refuge is home to one the United States’ most contentious conservation battles, over a region known as the 1002 Area.

Making up less than 8 percent of the refuge, the 1002 Area contains vital habitat for an international cast of migratory birds and other animals, like polar bears, that rely on the border of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. At the root of the controversy is the fact that the section of coastal plain hosts not only the preferred calving ground for a large, migratory population of caribou, but also, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, 7.7 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Today, the battle continues over the 1002 Area, which could be opened to drilling by an act of Congress.

As a graduate student, George Schaller accompanied the naturalists Olaus and Mardy Murie on an expedition into ANWR’s Brooks Range. Many regard that 1956 trip as laying the scientific groundwork for the establishment of the refuge. Today, Schaller, 77, is a senior conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and vice president of Panthera, a big-cat conservation agency. He is widely regarded as one of the world’s preeminent conservation biologists. Schaller has traveled the world to do pioneering research on wildlife, and he has worked to create national parks in places like China, Nepal and Brazil, and a peace park spanning four countries in Central Asia. But the Arctic is never far from his thoughts.

Why are people still talking about the Muries’ 1956 Brooks Range expedition?

The Muries were extremely good advocates for the refuge because they came back from their expedition with solid information about the natural history of the area. Momentum had been building since the late 1930s to protect the area, but this was the first such detailed scientific effort to describe the diversity of life there.

After the expedition, the Muries, with the help of the Wilderness Society, were able to ignite a major cooperative effort between Alaskans, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Park Service, Interior Secretary Fred Seaton and even the late Senator Ted Stevens, though he became a big foe once there was oil.

Did your time working in the Arctic with the Muries shape your ideas about science and conservation?

It was an illuminating experience for me, which has stayed with me my whole life. Yes, we were doing science, but facts don’t mean very much unless you put them into context. Olaus’ context, which he talked about often, was that the Arctic must be protected and we have to fight to see this done. We have to consider not just the science but the beauty, ethical and spiritual values of the area—“the precious intangible values.” That combination of science and advocacy most definitely has shaped what I have done over the past half century.

From a biological standpoint, is there anything that makes ANWR more critical to protect than other areas in the Alaskan Arctic?

The refuge is large—about 31,000 square miles—and that is of great importance to its future. The other important aspect is that it has all of the major habitats—taiga forest, scrublands, alpine meadows, glaciers, tundra and, of course, life doesn’t stop at the edge of the land but extends into the Beaufort Sea, which, unfortunately, the refuge does not include.

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