The Trump administration has made no secret of the fact that when it comes to America’s public lands, their loyalty rests with the oil and gas, mining and logging industries – not the American public. Alaska has not been immune to this imbalance either, and the Bureau of Land Management will soon officially release a proposed plan for 3-D seismic exploration across the entire 1.6 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, with a public comment period potentially to follow.

The administration wants to allow a small army of industrial vehicles and equipment onto the coastal plain with a mandate to crisscross every square inch of the Arctic Refuge’s biological heart. This scheme will put denning polar bears at risk and leave lasting scars on the fragile tundra and its vegetation, and that’s before a single drill rig has been placed or length of pipeline installed.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a true refuge for wildlife. Birds from all 50 U.S. states raise their young on the coastal plain alongside species ranging from caribou and polar bears to muskoxen and snowy owls. Despite the coastal plain’s incomparable wilderness, wildlife and subsistence values, SAExploration in its plan failed to reference or say it would conduct any scientific study on the impacts of its proposed work.

SAExploration’s plan calls for two massive teams of 150-160 workers living in mobile camps that would be moved up to two miles every few days throughout the coastal plain on giant sleds, alongside tractors, fuelers, loaders and other support vehicles and equipment. Working continuously in two 12-hour shifts every day from December through May, these teams would cross the coastal plain in multiple 90,000-pound “thumper trucks” sending vibrations into the ground to map out oil and gas resources. That is 10,000 pounds heavier than the 18-wheeler trucks that traverse America’s highways (80,000 pounds is the maximum allowed weight for 18-wheeler trucks without an oversize permit). 

In addition, despite BLM stating there will be no significant impacts from seismic exploration, multiple experts have suggested otherwise, and a 2010 study from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service suggests a need for a full environmental impact statement. It noted: Previous studies of disturbance from winter seismic vehicles in the Arctic predicted short-term and mostly aesthetic impacts, but we found that severe impacts to tundra vegetation persisted for two decades after disturbance under some conditions.

And then there’s the wildlife. The seismic work outlined by SAExploration would occur in the middle of critical habitat for the threatened Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear, currently down to a population of approximately 900 bears. Exploration would occur during polar bear denning season, and polar bears are increasingly using the coastal plain to build their dens as sea ice disappears due to climate change.

Caribou and birds like snowy owls and ptarmigan can be found there in winter as well, and muskoxen – these prehistoric-looking creatures live year-round on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain. After disappearing in Alaska more than 100 years ago, they were reintroduced in 1969 and today the Arctic Refuge serves as protected habitat.

The bottom line? Seismic exploration does not belong in America’s largest and wildest refuge any more than development belongs in Yellowstone Park or the Grand Canyon. Please stay informed about this issue – and watch for the official public comment period to open. We all need to raise our voices against this atrocious idea! For more information, contact Lois Norrgard at lois@alaskawild.org.

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