Columnist Johanna E. Neumann: Protecting America’s last great wilderness

  • In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska.

Published: 9/16/2020 1:46:39 PM

Nineteen years ago I spent three months in Arkansas working on a singular mission: to build the support necessary to convince then U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Last month the Trump administration finalized plans to open the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas leasing as early as December of this year, so I’ve been reflecting on my time in Arkansas.

I boarded with George and Zalinka, my generous host family in Little Rock. I transformed a local pizzeria into a campaign office, training volunteers at the round formica tables. Using free cellphones I had canvassed — my first experience with wireless technology — my volunteers and I ran call-in days at the University of Arkansas. I recruited rice farmers and duck hunters to tell the senator why protecting the Arctic was important to them.

This work felt important to me because there are few places on the planet where humanity’s footprint has been lighter than the Arctic Refuge. The coastal plain of the refuge has been called America’s Serengeti. No roads or official campgrounds exist within its borders. Herds of caribou still ford its rivers; eagles still bank above its plains; polar bears, foxes, porcupines, 200 species of bird and too many other beings to count still thrive in this chill Eden above the Arctic Circle, a place more biologically rich and diverse than most of us can imagine that far to our north.

The debate over what to do with the Arctic Refuge’s 19 million acres dates back to 1930, when forester Bob Marshall wrote about “repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth.” As journalist Brooke Jarvis said, Marshall saw the Arctic lands he had explored as “not another chance to keep chasing America’s so-called Manifest Destiny but a chance to finally stop chasing it.”

In 1977, environmentalists began the effort to pass what became known as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. But after Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential race, conservationists accepted a compromise over the fate of the refuge’s 1.5 million acre coastal plain. Instead of designating the plain as wilderness, Congress directed the Department of the Interior to research the plain’s potential for oil development. Congress reserved for itself the decision whether to allow leasing and drilling if oil was in fact found there.

So began a perennial struggle to defend the Arctic Refuge. Seemingly annually, Alaskan politicians and fossil fuel interests lobbied Congress for the green light to drill. Every time the environmental community together with the native Gwich’in people (for whom the caribou is a chief form of sustenance and a cultural touchstone) pushed back, employing whatever tactics we could to make the case for the Arctic and its wildlife.

The defensive efforts foiled votes to open the refuge in 1991, 1996, 2002 (my Arkansas stint) and 2005 (and helped secure a veto by President Bill Clinton in 1995). But the push to drill didn’t let up, and in 2017, the Arctic Refuge was opened during budget deliberations by a Republican-led Congress. For those of us who had worked hard to protect this place, that vote was a bitter pill to swallow, especially since the fight had been so long and vigorous.

Though we lost that battle in Congress, the contest over the fate of the Arctic Refuge is not over. Evidence suggests that the Department of the Interior took unlawful shortcuts when they decided to open the refuge to oil and gas development and so once again environmental groups are picking up the banner and taking the Trump administration to court.

The legal action is not just on behalf of members of the environmental organizations on the case. They also represent — in a moral, if not legal sense — the caribou and the wolf, the eagle and the polar bear, the mountain and the river, the beauty and the silence that should remain undisturbed by industry.

The lawsuit also defends an idea — that for a very long time, but especially now, when our scientific and engineering ingenuity has made it easier than ever to conserve, use energy efficiently, and get all the power we need from renewable sources, we have, or should have, outgrown the “tyrannical ambition to conquer every niche of the whole earth.”

We need more nature, not less. Our ambition should be not to conquer the earth, but to restore it.

Johanna Neumann of Amherst has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at

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