09/03/2013 10:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Climate Recon: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


The last two weeks I spent in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with four other military veterans and two volunteer guides from the Sierra Club. The weather was colder, and snowier, than any trip in the 30+ years of combined experience from both guides. We chalked it up to us simply being veterans.

Everything is harder when GI Joe goes out in the field.

On the last night of our time in the Arctic, after walking 45 miles on the map and an estimated 70 or 75 miles in total in the roundabout way the Arctic makes you move, we stood watching the late night sun set for the second time creating a glow on the Brooks Range. One of the participants, a Marine named Doug who grew up just outside Gary, Indiana remarked that, "If you were looking for an answer from God this would be it."

We had gone into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as part of the Sierra Club Mission Outdoors' Climate Reconnaissance Team mission, whereby veterans and service personnel are given an opportunity to touch and feel first hand the areas where climate change and conservation proponents and opponents are having some of the most acrimonious debates in our nation's conservation history.

The question we asked at the outset was whether or not the Refuge should remain off-limits to drilling and oil exploration. With that question asked, we got on the planes, powered by jet fuel, and landed in the middle of the Arctic near a place called Red Sheep Creek and started walking.

The Refuge is a most confounding place.

Oil companies believe there are massive amounts of the precious resource locked underneath the mountains, rivers, and tundra protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Conservationists argue the land should remain, as is, an American Serengeti that preserves a truly wild landscape. Oil developers counter they are only looking for a small percentage of development in comparison to the millions of acres protected. How much would this small percentage break up the landscape, which requires significant petroleum driven transportation to access in the first place?

Former President Ronald Reagan argued:

"We want to protect and conserve the land on which we live -- our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests," he said. "This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it."

Drilling in the Refuge would betray that trust to the next generation and violate the moral responsibility Reagan exhorts to uphold, and while every participant walked away with a different idea of the challenge and solution of the problem, the consensus was that we should leave the land as it is.


We as a country, and I think Reagan would have agreed, are smart enough and creative enough to create new energy solutions that can leave the Refuge as is and preserve this piece of wilderness where we, warriors and citizens, men and women young and old of all races, ethnicities, beliefs, and creeds can go to connect to that fundamental human need of wild places near and far.

Special thanks to Zack Bazzi for the photographs of our trip used here, to Gary Keir and Don Murch for their outstanding leadership, Patrick Hu, Karel Morales, and Doug L Peters for their willingness to jump into the wilderness with both feet and to The North Face, Airblaster, and Suunto for their various support.