Sponsored in part by


It’s a cold and bleak place in winter. But every spring Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge comes alive, bursting with such a profusion of birds and animals that some call it an American Serengeti.

Eye in the Sky

Catapulted into national headlines as a result of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, the question of whether companies should be allowed to drill through the permafrost in search of oil remains a principal topic of political discourse in Alaska. The debate is especially sharp among two of Alaska’s native communities: the 260 Inupiat of the village of Kaktovik, and their neighbors on the opposite side of the soaring Brooks Range, the 120 Gwich’in Indians of Arctic Village.

The Inupiat, who look to the sea and whaling for their traditional food, generally favor drilling. The Gwich’in, who rely more on the 129,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd for sustenance and view the refuge lands as sacred, side with conservationists who maintain that drilling would harm the environment.

Most other Alaskans—including the state’s leading politicians—are decidedly in the Inupiat’s corner. They see development of a 1.5-million-acre (600,000-hectare) strip along the coastal plain as a way of extending the economic boom times that the state has enjoyed as a result of its abundant oil reserves.


Hailed as one of the world’s last great wildernesses, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a 19-million-acre (7.7-million hectare) northern wonderland more than three times the size of the state of Vermont. By law, all but the coastal region—an area about the size of Delaware—is permanently closed to development.

In addition to providing feeding and nesting grounds for 130 species of migratory birds, the refuge is an important denning habitat for polar bears. Other inhabitants include musk oxen and grizzly bears.

But perhaps the most spectacular of the area’s natural phenomena is its role as a prime calving area for the famed Porcupine caribou herd. The animals winter in northeastern Alaska, the central Yukon and the Richardson mountains of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Every spring caribou in groupings of tens of thousands travel hundreds of miles into the refuge’s calving grounds, where they are bothered by few predators and find nutrient-rich tundra plants that provide nourishment to calves and nursing cow caribou.

Another natural treasure thought to abound in the refuge is oil, though just how much is in dispute. Government geologists have estimated anywhere from 500 million to 16 billion barrels may lie under the tundra, with a 95 percent chance of the former and 5 percent chance of the latter.


Drilling advocates use the more optimistic ranges to argue that the reserve could provide a million barrels per day—considerably more than the United States receives each day from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a volume that the U.S. Department of Energy places at 585,000 barrels. They scoff at the claim that drilling in this relatively small area would disrupt wildlife.

Opponents of drilling, using the lower estimates, maintain that the reserve might provide less than a year’s worth of oil for the nation—if it proves economically recoverable at all. And in a recent letter urging President Clinton to ban exploration by executive order, about 250 scientists argued that drilling would indeed interfere with the web of life in the refuge.

A great deal of money is at stake in the argument—and not just for oil companies. Pressure among the citizens of Alaska to begin drilling has increased at the same time that the state’s current source of wealth, the vast oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, has been gradually declining. The state government estimates that the area’s output has fallen to half its peak 1980s rate of about 2 million barrels per day.

Oil sluicing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has made Alaska one of the most prosperous states in the country, financing about three-quarters of the state budget without any income tax, and an annual “dividend” for every man, woman and child that in 2000 amounted to more than U.S. $1,900.

First protected as a wildlife refuge by President Eisenhower’s executive order in 1960, the area has been a political football ever since. Members of the Alaska congressional delegation and other Republicans have periodically sought to allow drilling in the coastal area, while environmentalists—mostly on the Democratic side—have tried to make the ban on development permanent by passing legislation proclaiming the coast a protected wilderness like the rest of the refuge. The result has been a 40-year stalemate.

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

 Related Websites

More Information
•  The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was first protected by an executive order issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960.
•  Biologists and conservationists have long hailed the northeast corner of Alaska for its beauty and diversity of wildlife.
•  President Jimmy Carter signed legislation in 1980 that more than doubled Alaska’s protected area.
•  The relatively small coastal plain area—about 8 percent of the refuge—remains subject to drilling for oil.

More Information


Business interests and the state’s congressional delegation were outraged two decades ago when President Jimmy Carter more than doubled the size of national parks and wildlife refuges in Alaska. Critics predicted that not enough visitors would come to see the wonders of nature to offset losses from potential commercial development.

Today Alaskan businesses and politicians have changed their minds about the lure of nature in light of the state’s U.S. $1 billion tourism industry. The number of visitors to Alaska has tripled since 1980. Tourism has overtaken fishing as the state’s second-largest industry, exceeded only by oil and gas.

In national parks, where visitors have doubled over the past decade, wilderness aficionados such as backpackers and kayakers grumble about noise from helicopters and Jet Skis. The cruise-ship industry has mushroomed as well, with attendant complaints about crowds and pollution. One cruise line was fined U.S. $6.5 million for dumping toxic waste into the water, and others have been cited for violating air-pollution levels.

Alaska officials are now pushing for further tourism development. A 90-mile road through Denali National Park has been proposed, along with loosening restrictions on visitors around the falls in Katmai National Park, where brown bears wade into waist-deep water to snatch up salmon.