The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is an unsullied American frontier, the kind of place that boldly reminds the world how wild this planet was before mankind. It offers an introspective kick in the chest to anyone who’s forgotten how utterly unnecessary our industries are, or how fleeting our place in history truly is.

And, thanks to a recent Republican initiative, America’s fossil fuel industry is preparing to ravage the pristine frontier for good.

I worked there last summer, on a conservation film aimed to protect the mind-bending beauty of the region. The experience left an impression on me I’ll never shake: a fear born from love and admiration that still makes my guts tingle. It is a wilderness so brutally massive, one feels microscopic in its midst. The wildlife is also so bizarre and distinct it seems like a place pulled off the pages of a fantasy novel: wolves prowl the underbrush, eagles soar overhead, and grizzly bears regularly lumber about, fishing for monstrous salmon in frigid rivers that cut through the Brooks mountains and across the rolling green tundra like snaking saw blades.

And, of course, there’s the porcupine caribou herd, a thundering mob of beasts 170,000 strong. It stampedes every summer across the refuge in their frenzied, annual migration. It is a virgin wild, a rare and dazzling Arctic Eden.

The refuge exists about as far north as one can go while still standing on American soil. Tucked against the Arctic Ocean and Canadian border, it sits in the Northeastern corner of Alaska, squarely in the Arctic Circle, deeply remote and far removed from the minds of most Americans.

I was there helping an environmental filmmaker by the name of Florian Schulz, on a project titled simply, The Refuge. Our mission: bring the immense beauty and magnitude of that region home. We were to capture its magic on camera so people who’ve never seen the ANWR, or known it in any way, would be inspired to stand up for it, and to protect it. As is so desperately needed.

Because the ANWR is rich, not only in biodiversity and natural beauty, but also in oil and natural gas reserves. There are subterranean seas of fuel that have had oil and gas companies salivating like hungry dogs for decades. Environmental conservation groups have fought tooth and nail to keep those hounds out since the refuge was established in 1960. But pressure from special interests has made it an uphill battle. It’s a fight that is now one step closer to being lost forever.

This past November 15, a Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted in favor of opening up the ANWR for resource development. They want to pimp the refuge out to oil and gas companies like a whore. Their excuses are the same as always: “Job creation,” “balancing the federal budget” and “American energy independence” … but at its core, it’s simply about money.

Money to poison Arctic rivers with the inevitable “leaks” and “spills”; money to build pipelines over fox dens and snow goose nesting areas; money to spew toxic fumes into the air where eagles fly over land they used to hunt.

It is exactly the kind of legislation Schulz’s film aims to prevent. We spent the better part of a month camping out in the heart of that wilderness, traveling by bush plane and helicopter, lugging camera equipment over vast distances and tracking caribou across the land to do so. 

But those difficulties were nothing compared to the reward: being a part of the stunning land and the majesty of the life that thrives. In my time there, we filmed thousands of caribou surging over the tundra, ambushed by wolves and grizzly bears as they went, crossing frigid rivers with their young in tow and climbing over jagged mountain peaks. It was like glimpsing through a window in time, at a long-ago world unbroken by man, a pre-historic drama on a naturally epic scale.

I became quickly convinced that the ANWR was one of America’s greatest, and most valuable, treasures. With each passing day, my dedication to protect it, and desire to share its beauty with the world, grew.

And for a short while afterwards, it seemed like our work was paying off. President Obama used clips from The Refuge in an ad to promote protection of the ANWR as a proper Federal Wilderness Area. Which would have kept it indefinitely safe from exploitation. Things were looking hopeful. The future was brightening up. After almost 60 years of fighting to keep oil and gas developers out of the ANWR, it felt like we were finally on the brink of establishing its protection once and for all.

That was, until we got a new president.

The Trump administration’s rotten worldview puts no value in preserving the environment in any discernable way. This isn’t any secret. In fact, as president, Trump has actively and openly made moves to hurt the environment and backtrack conservation efforts. His administration pushed the Dakota Access Pipeline through, despite massive months-long protests, and is encouraging the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. It's also paving the way for the soon-to-be disastrous Pebble Mine.

It was no surprise then when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 13-10 in favor of legislation that would open the ANWR to resource developers, offering it up like a virgin sacrifice to please their fossil fuel overlords.

It’s a nightmare Republicans have chased for years. And it’s also a move that threatens something indescribably sacred. There will always be new, more profitable, more sustainable ways to produce energy, but there will never be another Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Destroying it for the sake of profit and fuel would be sacrilegious.

The oil industry has barely been around for 160 years — blinks of an eye to a place so primitive. The porcupine caribou herd, that colossal family of wild reindeer perpetually migrating across the ANWR, is so ancient, they once grazed alongside wooly mammoths some 2.4 million years ago.

Who are we to disrupt such natural harmony? How could we possibly excuse vandalizing something so old and balanced?

We don’t have that right. It isn’t ours to vandalize.

Of course, that won’t stop the fossil fuel industry, or their puppets in government. They don’t care what they destroy, so long as their hunger for profit is satisfied. It’s an ugly thought to entertain, but unless they’re stopped, millions of years of life and evolution and natural history will be desecrated.

Ruined for the sake of petty politicians and greedy corporate mongers who won’t even outlive the money they make in the process.

[all photos courtesy Will Brendza]