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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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(Continued from page 1)

Why is its size so crucial?

Size is important because with climate change the vegetation zones will shift. By being large and varied in topography, plant and animal life can shift with its habitat. The refuge provides a place for species to adapt and still be within a protected area.

In addition, unlike so many other areas in the Arctic, humans have not modified the refuge. It retains its ecological wholeness. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done a good job of maintaining it. Because its habitat remains unmodified, ANWR offers an essential baseline for comparison with changes elsewhere—for example, the changes associated with climate change.

The refuge is often referred to as “the Last Great Wilderness.” Is it truly “wilderness?”

It is indeed America’s last great wilderness, something the nation should be proud to protect as part of its natural heritage. However, we tend to think of places with few or no people such as the Arctic Refuge as “wilderness.” I do too, from my cultural perspective. Remember, if you’re a Gwich’in or Inuit, the Arctic Refuge and other parts of the Brooks Range is your home in which you subsist. It has symbolic value too, but in a much more specific way in that there are sacred places and special symbolic sites. They may view their “wilderness” quite differently.

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, to the west, is four million acres larger than ANWR. What is the difference between the two?

The NPR-A is not an undeveloped place. Part of the Bureau of Land Management’s mandate is to allow development—there’s been drilling, exploration and much has already been leased. Unlike the refuge, it also does not extend over the Brooks Range south into extensive taiga.

Are there unsolved mysteries left in the Arctic?

We know very little about the ecological processes in the Arctic, or anywhere else for that matter. Yes, somebody like myself studies a species but that’s one of thousands that are all integrated with each other. How are they all integrated to form a functioning ecological community? With climate change, we don’t even know the ecological base line that we’re dealing with. What will happen to the tundra vegetation when the permafrost melts? We really need to know far more. But fortunately a considerable amount of research is now going on.

It has been over 50 years. Why do you keep fighting to protect ANWR?

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