What future for Arctic Refuge in the Anthropocene

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The Anthropocene—it’s the idea that we are in a new era, an era of Earth’s history wherein human activities are becoming a dominant, disturbing, and destabilizing force upon the entire Earth system, not just its climate.


Because of its northern latitude, the Arctic Refuge is changing more rapidly and dramatically than most areas of the nation. Most noticeable now are the Refuge’s melting glaciers, eroding coastline, and impacts to polar bears from diminishing sea ice. But more alarming is what the science predicts: the permafrost will continue thawing, potentially releasing methane and microbes; there will be shifts in the range and composition of plant and animal communities, such as increased shrub cover and advancing tree lines, and a decline in wetlands and soil moisture; changes in water abundance, temperature, chemistry and alkalinity; larger, more frequent and intense wildfires; more likelihood of increased invasives and pathogens; earlier breakup and later freeze up. The list continues to grow.

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Refuge staff, and others, find themselves confronting a dilemma: This Last Great Wilderness won't be natural in the foreseeable future, at least not by the common meaning of natural. That common meaning being “not shaped by or substantially altered by human activities”.

We now recognize that the Refuge can only remain natural if we reinterpret natural to mean free from developments, roads, facilities, and other such artifacts, regardless of the degree to which the area's composition and ecology have changed because of human-caused climate and other global-scale effects.

But the Refuge can always be wild if we refrain from intervening. It will remain wild as long as it remains a place of free-functioning ecological and evolutionary processes, where all lifeforms adapt and evolve in response to changing conditions as they will, not according to our will. We should remember that the root word of wilderness is will, referring to an area being self-willed, and not subject to our will.

So what can we do? Well, we could try to resist some changes through what are called ecological interventions, manipulations, or restoration efforts. For example, we could try to put out wildfires, find a way to manipulate the hydrological system, or use assisted migration or genetic engineering to help plants and animals adapt. But given the limits of our ecological understanding, interventions have the potential for risky unintended consequences. For example, putting out wildfires would have the effect of causing larger and more intense fires in the future. As well, in the long term, interventions could impede the ecological system’s ability to adapt to new conditions on its own.

Pondering this dilemma, the staff began by considering the historic purposes of Arctic Refuge. The founders believed that it should always remain wild, and its special function should be seen in the larger context of human-earth relations. That's why Olaus Murie said the campaign to establish the Refuge was also about "what the human species is to do with this Earth." We also considered Indigenous perspectives on the interrelatedness of humans and the larger community of life, and the need for humility, respect and restraint in relating to nature.

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Therefore, as the staff contemplates the Anthropocene changes and challenges that lie ahead, we believe it may be short-sighted, even futile, to try to maintain the conditions of our current point in time. Rather, perhaps we should respect and perpetuate the creative evolutionary process itselfwildness. Thus we would avoid interventions and manipulations aimed at resisting the inevitable effects of global-scale change. We would stand back, watch and learn, but not intervene, as the ecological systems within Arctic Refuge adapt and evolve. We understand that over time some species will decline and disappear from the area, and be replaced by others. That’s how the creative process of evolution works, by opening niches for new plants and animals better adapted to the changing conditions.

Yes, it’s all hard to accept—we wish things would stay the same. But we must plan thoughtfully and realistically for the rapid, unprecedented environmental changes and uncertainties that lie ahead, while continuing to prevent or address impacts caused within the area, such as inappropriate types and levels of visitor use or agency actions.

In response to the growing Anthropocene dilemma, the Arctic Refuge staff decided to no longer speak of management of the Refuge’s landscapes and species. Instead, we will speak of Refuge stewardship. The connotations and nuances of these two words are different. Although they both denote an underlying element of oversight, management strongly suggests manipulation, control, domination, and making or keeping things the way we want them to be. Stewardship better conveys the idea of caring for a place, and embraces a sense of humility, restraint, and a deference to the processes of the area’s origin and unfolding. As the multiple effects of climate and other global-scale changes continue to accelerate, stewardship of the Arctic Refuge reminds us that, as its founders intended and as the Gwich'in people have told us, there can be other ways of relating to the world.

What do you think? Do you have ideas about how the Refuge should respond to the changing future we face?