Over time, millions of people have come to understand the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is unique, irreplaceable and important.
PERCHED on the northernmost shores of Alaska, bounded on one side by the rugged Brooks Range and on the other by the Beaufort Sea, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an unparalleled sanctuary that is beautiful, fragile and teeming with life.
It is the nesting place for millions of birds that migrate to every other state. It is where porcupine caribou — with the longest land migration on earth — give birth to their calves each year. And it is a powerful symbol of our national covenant to protect the unspoiled places that make this country great.
It is also home to a people who have relied on the Arctic Refuge since time immemorial. The native Gwich’in people understand better than anyone the consequences of losing the Arctic Refuge. Their way of life has the caribou at its center. They call the coastal plain, “The sacred place where life begins.”
I’ve been fortunate to have visited the refuge many times. It’s a place like no other — caribou as far as the eye can see, grizzlies and polar bears, wolves, musk ox and nearly 200 species of birds. I’ll be back there again this summer.
But where I see an unspoiled sanctuary, the oil and gas industry and a handful of relentless political allies see oil barrels and dollar signs.
The importance of the Arctic Refuge inspired my lifelong commitment to conservation and is the foundation of my philanthropy. It has helped me understand why I must use my voice and elevate the voices of those who are too often ignored.
Edward Abbey said, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense — it only needs defenders.” The Arctic Refuge has always had defenders — starting with Mardy and Olaus Murie, who explored this landscape more than 90 years ago and urged it be given special protection.
Over time, millions have come to understand the Arctic Refuge is unique, irreplaceable and important. Each year, new champions have joined the effort. I have always been struck by the fact that most advocates for the refuge may never visit it themselves.
But today, a new movement is taking shape. Some are environmental advocates who see the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on earth. And others are new defenders with new ways of understanding how we are all connected to the Arctic Refuge.
These are people like Chad Brown from Oregon, an African-American Navy veteran who is taking 14 kids and seven veterans to the refuge this summer because he understands wilderness can inspire young people and heal the scars of violence, and Mark Magaña of GreenLatinos, who sees a solidarity between Latino communities and Alaska Native people.
We’ve been inspired by Princess Daazhraii Johnson and Lorraine Netro, Gwich’in women who have dedicated their lives to standing with and for their community. Veterans, such as Stacy Bare and Genevieve Chase, who recognize the refuge as emblematic of what they fought to protect and a place that provides healing for those returning from war. Outdoor enthusiasts, people of faith and environmental organizations who have fought for decades to protect the Arctic Refuge are also part of the chorus.
Our leaders are taking notice. Just last year, President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell showed tremendous leadership by releasing a Comprehensive Conservation Plan that for the first time called for the permanent protection of all of the Arctic Refuge, including the coastal plain. This recommendation has changed the tide for protection of the Arctic Refuge and is moving us instead toward final proactive protections.
Taking up the president’s call, a record number of members of Congress have added their names as sponsors of legislation to protect the most threatened area within the refuge — the coastal plain. Washington’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have already signed on to support this legislation.
I recognize work still remains — the Arctic Refuge is still in peril — but history is on our side.
There are places where oil rigs don’t belong — the Arctic Refuge is one of them. I remain hopeful we can protect the Arctic Refuge once and for all. I encourage fellow Seattleites to join me by signing the We Are the Arctic petition and telling our national representatives that now is the time to protect the Arctic Refuge.