Sitting in the northeast corner of Alaska above the Arctic Circle, ANWR currently occupies 19.6 million acres (7.9 million hectares). Area 1002 stretches over an approximate 100-mile (161-kilometer) strip of coastal plain, hemmed in to the south by the Brooks Mountain Range, the Beaufort Sea to the north, and the Aichilik and Canning rivers to the east and west, respectively. Area 1002 covers about 1.5 million acres (607,028 hectares), or about 8 percent of the total ANWR area.
Image courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Ecologically, ANWR is classified as an arctic tundra. Beneath the surface, the ground remains frozen all year round (permafrost). During the summer months, the temperatures rise to an average of about 40 degrees F (4.4 degrees C), and the sunlight shines continuously. The upper few inches of soil thaw, which allows opportunistic plants to establish a foothold and grow. During the winter, the temperatures drop to an average of about -4 degrees F (-20 degrees C), and the days are continuously dark. Little rain falls (less than 10 inches or 25 centimeters per year), and about half the time, the skies are cloudy.
The topography of ANWR soars from the high peaks of the Brooks Mountain Range and swoops down to the low-lying coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea. ANWR's coastal plain region features rolling hills from the coast to the foothills of the Brooks Mountain Range. The area contains many small lakes and rivers that flow northward from the mountains to the Beaufort Sea. The vegetation consists mostly of mosses and shrubs, or plants with shallow root systems that can penetrate the upper layers of thawed soil during the growing season.
The Dinkum Sands Case
In 1997, the state of Alaska claimed that the submerged lands along the northeast coast and the lagoons enclosed by them were under state, not federal, jurisdiction (one of these land formations was called Dinkum Sands). If this were true, then these areas could be explored for offshore drilling of oil and gas. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these lands and lagoons were part of ANWR and, therefore, owned by the U.S. government. The court also declared the coastal waters off the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (NPRA) as owned by the federal government. That makes these areas subject to federal protection under the 1980 ANILCA law.
Numerous species of mammals and birds call ANWR home. Some of the most important species relative to the controversy include caribou, polar bears, musk oxen and various birds. Although polar bears move throughout the north shore of Alaska, many female polar bears make their dens onshore in Area 1002. Porcupine caribou like to migrate to the area to breed and give birth in the spring. Many bird species also head for nesting areas there during the brief spring and summer.
Two groups of native peoples reside within ANWR: the Gwich'in Indians and the Inupiat Eskimos. The Gwich'in Indians live in about 15 villages scattered from Arctic Village, Alaska, southward and westward, extending into Canada. These people live in traditional ways and depend upon the porcupine caribou that migrate and breed within ANWR for subsistence. The Inupiat Eskimos reside along the coastal plain and hunt whales, musk oxen and sheep.
In 1971, President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). This act established the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC) and subsequent city of Kaktovik, Alaska, located within Area 1002. Except for the KIC, the land within ANWR including Area 1002 is owned by the U.S. government.
Now that you know a little more about ANWR's residents, let's talk about the elephant in the room: oil.