Featured photo by Keri Oberly: A caribou photographed near Nuiqsut in July 2018.

After more than four decades, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is finally updating its protections for the Western Arctic. Officially called National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) by the federal government, the region’s patchwork of statutes have often prioritized oil and gas interests—but its management was always intended to protect the ecology, subsistence, recreation, and cultural values of the Arctic.

Now, the Biden administration is recognizing the federal government’s mandate to protect the Reserve with a revised framework for management. This change extends rigorous protections for more than 13 million acres in the region’s five Special Areas, which are essential to safeguarding the environment and the sovereignty of Arctic communities. It also prevents new leases in 10.6 million acres of the Special Areas, though existing leases will not be revoked.

One of the most important elements is a provision for updating—and potentially designating—new Special Areas. The final rule mandates review at least once every 10 years. This is a crucial step toward ensuring the Alaska Native communities who know and live on these lands and waters have the opportunity to guide future decision-making. But there is still work to be done.

During the BLM public comment period, the Iñupiat group Grandmothers Growing Goodness, highlighted additional ways to prioritize and protect Indigenous rights. The recent rule change says the BLM will seek co-stewardship opportunities in Special Areas and of subsistence resources, and clarifies directives to incorporate Indigenous Knowledge in decision making. The Biden administration is making important changes to protect the Arctic and move toward more equitable management practices, though the burden to identify problems will still fall largely on Alaska Native communities.

Alongside our partners in communities and organizations around Alaska, the Northern Center continues to pursue extensive protections for the rapidly changing Arctic.

Keep reading to learn more about the five Special Areas. (Click here to see a map.)


Teshekpuk Lake


The 3.65 million acres within the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area contain countless lakes, streams, coastal barrier islands, tundra, and wetlands. Teshekpuk Lake itself is the largest lake in Arctic Alaska, spanning an area larger than New York City. Every year, hundreds of thousands of migratory shorebirds journey north to these lakes and wetlands. More than a dozen species nest in this part of the Reserve, including spectacled and Steller’s eiders, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Snow geese rely on the Special Area’s large lakes as they molt and regrow the feathers that allow them to fly. The lakes provide abundant food sources and protection from predators during this transition of temporary flightlessness.

The area is also calving and foraging grounds for the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd, an important resource for at least five North Slope communities. In the summer, the herd travels along crucial land corridors toward the coast, where stiff summer breezes help dissipate swarming insects. In the winter, much of the herd stays on the central coastal plain rather than migrating south, heightening the need to protect the region from further development like ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project. 

Nancy Fresco, a researcher and coordinator for the Scenarios Network for Alaska + Arctic Planning (SNAP) with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said keeping these ecosystems intact is essential for protecting biodiversity. The problem with development like Willow, Fresco says, is “not the percentage of land that actually has a road or runway or an oil well on it, so much as the fragmentation of the landscape.” For migratory species like caribou and the many nesting birds in the Arctic, Fresco says the impact of this kind of infrastructure isn’t always immediately apparent, but it’s inevitable. 

A large swath of bright green tundra is broken up by a dirt road and pipeline that runs from the bottom left of the image to the top right. There are blue lakes and bodies of water on both sides of the road.

Oil and gas developments are seen near Nuiqsut and the Colville River in July 2018. (Photo by Keri Oberly)

These animals are already facing additional pressures from the climate crisis, which is rapidly altering Arctic ecosystems, from shifts in hydrology as permafrost thaws to changing vegetation and animal ranges. Since 2007, the SNAP team has been working to build resources and models to measure changes in northern ecosystems. Their research suggests average temperatures across the Reserve may increase 16 degrees Fahrenheit, with winter temperatures jumping by 27 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. 

Some changes happen more quickly. In a 2022 paper looking at distributions of molting waterfowl in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, researchers noted a pronounced trend of black brants shifting their habitat from inland lakes to a coastal estuary. This is just one example of how quickly animal behavior, and ecosystems themselves, are shifting. That’s why it’s essential that the BLM’s recent rule change enables the government to respond more quickly to Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and new scientific research.

The health of these ecosystems is central to the traditions and culture of the Iñupiat communities who have lived here for generations. Preventing new leases in any of the Special Areas will help preserve the fish, birds, and animals that sustain Arctic communities. 

Photo is taken from ground level and through the holes of a fishing net. People can be seen on both sides of the net reaching for fish that have been caught. They are standing on a rocky shore alongside a river.

People check their fishing nets along a river near Nuiqsut in July 2018. (Photo by Keri Oberly)


Colville River


The Iñupiat village of Nuiqsut is one of the communities inside the Reserve, sitting just outside the northern edge of the Colville River Special Area. The 2.44-million-acre Special Area follows its namesake river as it meanders its way north of the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. Passing Nuiqsut, the river fans into a vibrant delta outside of the Special Area. The river is a year-round source of fish for the community, and also provides access to a seasonal hunting camp upriver at Umiat. 

With existing oil leases and development in the Colville River Special Area around Nuiqsut, and the recently approved Willow Project adding further infrastructure, strengthening environmental protections in the Reserve is more important than ever.

An aerial image of the village of Nuiqsut. A river winds its way around the top right of the image. Around five rows of roads with homes dot the landscape. Beyond the village is green tundra, a large river and other smaller bodies of water.

Nuiqsut from above, photographed in July 2018. Community members have been speaking out for years about the effects development is having on the health of its people, land, and animals, including the Teshekpuk caribou. (Photo by Keri Oberly)

Nauri Simmonds, the executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, says the grassroots organization is cautiously optimistic this new framework could open the door to more collaborative and inclusive management of the Western Arctic. “If our government, along with the oil and gas companies, genuinely prioritize the health and safety of the communities that will be most impacted by [the Willow] project, they should have been the first to introduce the safety measures and co-stewardship this ruling opens a path for,” Simmonds said in a written statement.

Though pointing out this is just a start, SILA expressed hope “that this process will result in greater protections for traditional ways of life, through the new designation of Special Areas that are crucial for hunting and caribou migration.” 

The river corridor also provides important habitat for moose, bear, and migrating caribou, and is recognized as integral habitat for Arctic peregrine falcons, which were listed as an endangered species in the 1970s before making a comeback.

A group of around 20 caribou swim in a river that is murky and looks brown. Directly behind the caribou is a small skiff with six people, some children and some adults, wearing life vests and watching the caribou swim.

People go on a boat and hunting trip through the city of Nuiqsut in July 2018. Swimming in the water are caribou from the Porcupine caribou herd. (Photo by Keri Oberly)


Utukok River Uplands


Traveling hundreds of miles westward along the Colville River from Umiat, the Utukok River Uplands Special Area encompasses the headwaters of both the Colville and Utukok rivers. The largest of the Reserve’s five Special Areas at nearly 4 million acres, the region is home to a large population of grizzly bears and is the calving grounds for many of the 152,000-strong Western Arctic Caribou Herd.

The herd’s seasonal range can span 140,000 square miles—from their summer calving grounds in the Utukok River Uplands, north to coastal plains near the Arctic Ocean, and south of the Brooks Range. This is about a fifth of the entire state of Alaska. Though the Western Arctic Caribou Herd’s range currently crosses less development than others in the state, new research shows caribou are much more sensitive to traffic along existing infrastructure in the Arctic than previously understood by western science. 

Caribou forage over a huge area, but local knowledge and research suggests natural shifts where they overwinter over time. Caribou forage on lichen, a sensitive and slow-growing plantlike organism that can serve as indicators for larger environmental trends. The changing availability of food sources like this makes mobility really important to migratory species across the Arctic. “The broadness and vastness of the landscape is part of the ecology, and part of the human history of the landscape too,” said Fresco, the UAF researcher and SNAP coordinator.

A rocky outcrop is in focus in the foreground and a bright blue bundle of small flowers, forget-me-nots, clings to the edge. Small patches of orange lichen cover portions of the rocks. A mountain juts up and into the blue sky, out of focus in the background.

Lichen is visible on rocks, alongside a bundle of forget-me-nots, near Kotzebue on June 15, 2016. (NPS Photo by Emily Mesner)

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd’s population has natural cycles, but the herd has faced significant mortality as climate change increases the frequency of ice-on-snow events that restrict their foraging. The herd’s population has dropped dramatically from its estimated peak of 490,000 in 2003. In April of this year, regulators set new limits on subsistence harvests until the herd recovers, which comes at a high cultural and subsistence cost for around 40 communities who rely on them. 


Kasegaluk Lagoon and Peard Bay


The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world, and changing winter patterns ripple toward increasingly imminent ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean. Loss of sea ice amplifies the impacts of coastal erosion and means a loss of habitat for seals and walrus. Taking steps to safeguard the Reserve’s coastal ecosystems is more important than ever. Spanning 125 miles of coastline along the Chukchi Sea, Kasegaluk Lagoon Special Area provides sheltered waters for thousands of migratory birds and calving belugas, and its barrier islands offer safety for seals and walrus.

A large swath of green land is seen with deep fractures in it, exposing brown earth beneath it. Four wooden structures can be seen at the middle of the image slumping with the earth. To the right is a river.

Structures in a fish camp slump with the ground due to coastal erosion near Nuiqsut, photographed in July 2018. (Photo by Keri Oberly)

To the northeast of Wainwright, the waters and extensive wetlands of Peard Bay Special Area provide both nesting grounds and a key staging area for shorebirds like semipalmated sandpipers and red phalaropes before their southern migrations. This region is home to three types of seal, and is a polar bear denning habitat as well. The smallest of the Reserve’s Special Areas at 107,000 acres, Peard Bay’s biodiversity is yet another reminder how important it is to protect these Arctic ecosystems.

The Reserve’s existing Special Areas are ecologically significant, but there is no way to draw a neat line around an ecosystem—to delineate where something stops being considered “special.” These Arctic landscapes are deeply interconnected, both to the rest of the Reserve, and to the rest of the world. The bar-tailed godwit, for example, migrates to the Arctic from New Zealand, making its way along the islands and coasts of Asia before flying thousands of non-stop miles south on its return. It’s not alone: Birds come to the Arctic across continents, and from every U.S. state, while Arctic terns travel 24,000 miles round-trip from Antarctica.

These fragile connections in a shifting world make this a critical moment to prioritize an equitable transition to renewable energy. Oil has been a significant part of the state’s economy for decades, but has come at a huge cost for Alaskans and the environment.  

We’ll be keeping you posted on opportunities to participate in the new process for expanding protections for Special Areas.