Trump’s Legacy in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Shutterstock. “Caribou in the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge.” 2019. jpg file.

Written by Ariana Lipsman | Edited by Carol Coutinho

Last week we saw Trump at his worst, inciting a coup on the Capitol Building. Our disgraced, outgoing president has done a lot of damage during his term and after he leaves office, whether that be January 20th or (hopefully) sooner, what exactly will he leave behind? When it comes to the environment, Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, dropped climate change from the list of national security threats, and rolled back over 80 environmental rules and regulations. These environmental policies range from air pollution and emissions, animal protections, water pollution, to even toxic substances. 


But in the last months of his term, Trump and his administration deliberately tried to do as much damage as they could on the way out. Just a week after November’s turbulent election, in addition to refusing to accept its outcome, Trump and his administration attacked one of the most vital tools we have in the fight against climate change, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Trump administration jumped into action to open it up to oil-lease nominations. This means that they took bids from oil companies for different parts of this pristine, wild landscape, so that those companies can then drill for oil there. 

Why is this land so important? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last untouched places in the United States. It spans over 19 million acres and is home to caribou, musk oxen, gray wolves, whales, and the endangered polar bear. It is also a seasonal home to migratory birds from all over the seven continents. A strict “Leave no Trace” policy has been put in place in the area to preserve the pristine wilderness of the park. Oil drilling will obviously obliterate what this policy has preserved. The park is also part of the Arctic, where the climate is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Leaving the Arctic as untouched and wild as possible is an important part of the fight against climate change. 

Not only is ANWR home to endangered animals, but it is also home to a significant number of people as well, who depend on the wildlife for food. There are numerous visitors in the summer months who, along with some year-round residents, come to try their hand at subsistence living. But the largest communities who live in the refuge year-round are the Gwich’in and Inupiaq indigenous peoples. These groups have been living on this land for thousands of years, and depend on its natural resources- caribou, and a myriad of fish that live in both the fresh and marine waters at the refuge. After living on this land for hundreds of generations, it holds immense cultural and spiritual significance to these communities as well. The oil lease sales are near ANWR’s coastal plain, a place that the Gwich’in call “the sacred place where life begins”. 

Universal Images Group via Getty Images. “Coastal Plain from Hulahula Delta, ANWR, Alaska.” 2020. jpg file. 

The ANWR’s supposed oil reserves have been at the center of ongoing and suspiciously shadowy inspections by the government. 

The refuge is also home to the Porcupine Caribou herd, the largest herd of caribou in the world, and they only live inside the park’s grounds. Their very specific migratory patterns range throughout the park, and they are the primary food source for the local indigenous peoples.

The ANWR’s supposed oil reserves have been at the center of ongoing and suspiciously shadowy inspections by the government. The last time that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was checked for oil was in the 80’s, under President Reagan. The technology that was used for these surveys does not even exist anymore, and the results of its findings have strangely been kept under wraps. It is suspected that this is because there wasn’t even much oil to be found. Despite this, Trump restarted these efforts almost immediately after taking office, and made them the centerpiece of his plans for “energy dominance”. Trump’s seeming obsession with oil as the country’s main fuel source has been shortsighted. Other countries are already moving away from fossil fuels, causing oil prices to plunge, and yet he has done everything in his power to attain more.  



In 2017, he spent nearly $1 million to have the US Geological Survey begin new evaluations of ANWR with modern technology in the hopes that there would be new findings that promised an abundance of oil under its surface. The US Geological Survey (USGS) is a government agency that is tasked with studying the landscape and natural resources of the US. At the close of 2017, USGS was set to finish its updated evaluations, which hadn’t been done in 20 years. This was supposedly an exciting moment for the Trump administration, but early in 2018, the assessment was suddenly stopped by Trump’s appointed officials in the Department of the Interior. The Department of the Interior is an organization that is supposed to protect natural resources and the best interests of tribal nations. For the last two years, USGS has been holding onto the results of their assessment, and Interior officials will not let them share these results with anyone. This includes the Bureau of Land Management, the group that is organizing the oil leasing program and creating a report of its environmental impact. If all of this sounds extremely suspicious, that’s because it is.  

AP Photo/Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “A herd of musk ox graze in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”. 2015. jpg file.

The tests that USGS were working on in 2017 would not only have shown how much oil is actually in the coastal region of the refuge, but part of their findings would have been used in the project’s environmental impact statement. Instead, the information they did find still hasn’t been released. Many environmentalists are openly questioning why the survey was stopped, and more directly, what Trump’s officials are hiding. 

When it comes to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Trump administration has silenced scientific evidence that goes against its interests before. In 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reviewed the results of seismic surveys in the refuge, surveys that use damaging blasts of sound waves shot into the ground. This creates a picture of what’s underground, like supercharged echolocation. The survey itself leaves scars on the landscape, but to go even further, the results of these surveys were changed so that they would show less possible impact on polar bears and Native communities. 

All of Trump’s efforts to have this lease sale will hopefully be unsuccessful given recent events. The sale itself was scheduled, ironically, for January 6th, the day of the attack on the Capitol Building. It’s unclear whether the sale proceeded as planned during the events in DC, though bids from oil companies have been received as early as last month. If oil companies do successfully obtain leases, they are well aware of the controversiality of drilling in this refuge, and will likely face backlash. In addition to potential bad press, oil companies would also have to create a very expensive infrastructure to transport oil from such a remote location. 

Gorman, Liz. Indigenous Media Rising. “An Indigenous Pray-In at Capitol Hill.” 2017. jpg file.

Dishonesty has been the legacy of the Trump administration, but luckily, when it comes to ANWR, there are many organizations that have seen through his administration’s shady dealings and have been fighting against it. The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Gwich’in Steering Community, and the Audobon Society have all filed lawsuits against the Trump administration’s oil development plan. Not to mention the incoming Biden administration, which has taken a firm stance against Trump’s attack on the refuge. The Biden administration has made it clear that it will delay or even rescind any leases bought at Trump’s sale. 

Above all, this is a battle of publicity as well, and will continue to be, even as the Trump administration falls. Perhaps even more so, since the oil lease proceedings could slip through the cracks while so many other Trump-related issues are flooding the public consciousness. Trump has tried to keep this lease sale largely under the radar to avoid public outcry and bad press, and it has received active bids that still pose a danger. There are many things you can do to get the word out. 

1. You can write to your senators and representatives to voice your disapproval of Trump’s plan, and urge them to support any legislation that would block it. The National Resources Defense Council has created a great script that they will send straight to your specific legislators. All you have to do is enter your name and location and they will do the rest! 

2. You can sign petitions that will be directly sent to government officials involved with the project, such as this one, which will be sent directly to Ryan Zinke, the U.S. Interior Secretary. The incoming Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, is indigenous herself, and will most likely be an ally in the fight for ANWR, but she will not take office until the 20th. Until then, Zinke is in control of the lease sale. Trump’s goal has been to finalize leases just in time for Biden’s inauguration, so every day counts. 

3. You can post on your own social media! Word of mouth is very powerful, and the more people know what is happening, the more the incoming administration will pay attention to this issue. 

4. Write to the incoming Biden administration supporting their opposition, and urge them to rescind oil bids outright, rather than delay them. This lets them know that the public is following this issue, and expects them to take the promised actions to stop any possible drilling. 

5. Sign up for news from organizations on the frontlines of this issue to get real-time updates and specific calls to actions as this situation develops. 

 Universal Education/Universal Images Group. 2020. jpg file. 

Trump may be on his way out, but he can’t be allowed to slink away without being held accountable for, among many other things, threatening indigenous communities, endangered animal species, and the planet itself, all in the name of sheer greed. Thanks to many organizations that have been fighting for the refuge, and the incoming Biden administration, it isn’t likely that Trump’s plan will succeed. However, it’s up to us to hold our new public officials accountable to protect our indigenous communities, and irreplaceable wild land.  


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