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Happy Birthday Arctic Refuge... 50 Years is Just the Beginning!

Join us in many celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Refuge. Alaskans played a major hand in establishing what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on December 6, 1960 to preserve the wilderness values of a corner of Alaska on an ecosystem scale. Enjoy the many events in Fairbanks celebrating great vision 50 years ago and join with others who wish to ensure this unique wilderness lives on for the next 50 years and more.

Happy Birthday Arctic Refuge... 50 Years is Just the Beginning!

Caribou in midnight sun on Coastal Plain

Imagining a Legacy for future generations

Alaskans played a major hand in establishing the refuge 50 years ago to sustain these intact wild lands, and have taken a stand ever since to protect its integrity by safeguarding it from industrial scale tourism as well as from the dirty business that we have seen elsewhere in the Arctic from oil development spills and noisy intrusions.  

The deep Fairbanks and northern Alaskan roots in the fight to preserve this corner of Alaskan wilderness continue to set its course for continued protection in a way that values the wholeness of the intact ecosystem and that also recognizes its value to people. 

The Gwich’in and Inupiat people sustained their culture in the lands that are now the Arctic Refuge and lived for thousands of years with barely a visible trace on the land.  As these lands became threatened with oil development, their leaders and communities voiced their concerns about the changes, as the late Jonothon Solomon from Fort Yukon said, “it is our belief that the future of the Gwich’in and the future of the caribou are the same.  We cannot stand by the let them sell our children’s heritage to the oil companies.”[i]

Mardy Murie, who grew up in Fairbanks and was the first woman graduate of what is now the University of Alaska Fairbanks understood the fundamental value of these lands to all of us when she said, “wilderness itself is the basis of all our civilization.”[ii] 

Long-time Fairbanks resident Ginny Hill Wood, now 93 years old, was a pioneering conservationist and recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her World War II role in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots and the Fish & Wildlife Service's Citizen's Award.  She worked tirelessly for the refuge establishment and wrote in 1958,

“This is the last great wilderness left under the American flag, almost the world.  Our children and their children deserve to find some of it as wild, unspoiled, as unique, and as exciting as we have found it.”

Wood later testified in 1959 to these values of the Arctic Refuge:

“…although there are other parks and monuments and game refuges in Alaska, this would be unique, as it would be the only one that would encompass a true Arctic tundra complex and that has all of the Arctic animals, including the caribou, moose, sheep, wolverine, wolf, lynx, grizzly bear, and polar bear.  In no other reserve under the U.S. flag can all of these be found…

The esthetic, spiritual, recreation, and educational values of such an area are those one cannot put a price tag on any more than one can on a sunset, a piece of poetry, a symphony, or a friendship…”[iii]

Deeply rooted in the community, Murie became the first woman graduate of the University of Alaska and later in life recipient of an honorary doctorate as well as winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  In Fairbanks, she joined her husband Olaus Murie -- a renowned caribou biologist who wrote the landmark Alaska-Yukon Caribou study in 1935-- to rally Alaskans in support of establishing the refuge.  She wrote decades later:

“Ivishak, Okpilak, Aichilik, Kongakut.  These rivers have kept their Native names, and for me they have magic… There, in those arctic valleys, there is room for pure unadulterated adventure and learning, for present and future generations.  That is one reason for protecting the Refuge.  But more important, to my mind, would be our having courage enough, in the face of all challenges, to protect this region for the sake of the land itself, and the wildlife it supports.”[iv] 

Alaskans saw change coming fast from industrial pressures of all sorts and responded with considerable support for the proposed refuge.  Prior to Alaska statehood, the lands were set aside in 1957 for the purpose of establishing the wildlife refuge.   Even the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (October 23, 1959) and the Anchorage newspaper (December 12, 1960) editorialized in favor of it! 

In 1960, President Eisenhower’s Interior Secretary established the original refuge, then called the Arctic National Wildlife Range, “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.” At same time as he designated the new nearly 9 million-acre new refuge, he opened over 20 million acres of prime lands to the oil industry and the State of Alaska – including the “prize” of Prudhoe Bay.  Many Alaskans today ignore the balance was struck in land use across the North Slope at that time. 

On the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Refuge on December 6, we can celebrate all that has been accomplished to preserve this unique place and look 50 or more years ahead so that someone can later say “what vision they had!”  If we all do our jobs well this living wilderness will live on as our predecessors set in motion.

This a landscape is so big, so wild that one’s photographs even in large format cannot capture its subtle and ever changing beauty-- but Jeff Jones whose work is featured at Well Street Art Co. this month has tried!  How do we anticipate the challenges of protecting its grandeur and its fragile details of lichen, avens and shorebird nest with eggs nested on river bar, moss, or twigs?  Can we ever fully know where the caribou go each day as they only these animals seem to know their ways so much of the time – but we do know that they need the big hungry country in order that food be there and a safe place exists for their birthing and nursery time into the future as it has since time immemorial.

With most Americans looking hours of each day at and youth texting or viewing cell phone screens mere inches how can this timeless land seem real -- much less worth protecting for wilderness, wildlife, water, subsistence, biological diversity, our treaty commitments with other nations for the next 50 years?  Get out outdoors!  Show kids your favorite place near home.  Check out the views of many Alaskans including youth who are concerned to leave a strong wilderness legacy (see

The Arctic Refuge also holds valuable lessons to our 21st century challenges of living sustainably and bringing new energy paths to fruition that don’t require extraction of fossil fuels in our treasured places including the Arctic Refuge and that reduce global warming pollution.  The Refuge with its time, freedom, and space along with millennial old cultures rooted in this place offer recurring lessons.  This is a human value of wilderness that is our obligation to pass on.

Wilderness Forever

Now is the time for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to recommend wilderness designation for all non-designated Refuge lands, including the entire coastal plain (1002 area) through its Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Arctic Refuge. This review and recommendation for wilderness designation will help ensure that the unique wildlife, wilderness, and subsistence values of the entire Arctic Refuge are protected for future generations.

Click here to learn more about NAEC celebrated the 50th anniversary!


[i] Gwich’in Steering Committee.  Protect the Sacred Place where life begins.


[iii] U.S. Senate hearing in Fairbanks on October 31, 1959.


[iv] Debbie S. Miller.  2000.  Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlfie Refuge, Alaska Northwest Books.  P. ix-x.


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