How #ProtectTheArctic Went Viral and Helped Stop Arctic Drilling

This month marks the one year anniversary of a historic victory, powered by imagery from "The Arctic: Our Last Great Wilderness." Read on to hear how advocates harnessed the power of social media and amplified the youth voice to help protect the Arctic in a big way.
Erika Lundahl Erika Lundahl
Conservation Impact Manager
January 21, 2022
How #ProtectTheArctic Went Viral and Helped Stop Arctic Drilling

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the United States’ largest wildlife refuge, a place of tremendous ecological importance, where birds from all 50 states migrate to each year. But in January 2021, the future of the Arctic Refuge looked uncertain.

The #ProtectTheArctic Campaign

In early 2021, public input processes were being short circuited by an eleventh-hour bid by the outgoing administration to support oil lease sales in the Refuge, threatening Indigenous sovereignty, imperiling denning polar bears, and setting the stage for permanent damage to the fragile tundra, which is already facing warming at twice the rate of the global average.

A proposal for 90,000-pound “thumper trucks” moving across the Arctic’s coastal plain to prospect for oil - seismic testing - neared approval by two federal agencies to begin in late January 2021. Even with a powerful coalition of Arctic advocates working around the clock, it was hard to keep the faith. Then something amazing happened. 

First thousands - then hundreds of thousands - then millions of youth on the social media platform TikTok wrote to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their message was simple and powerful: “We want the Arctic Refuge protected.”

The #ProtectTheArctic campaign had gone viral, kickstarted by the open-source sharing of powerful images and video from the IMAX film The Arctic: Our Last Great Wilderness, directed by photographer and Braided River author Florian Schulz. The campaign was strategically supported by Braided River, Gwich’in and Inupiat leaders, and a national coalition of Arctic advocates, and driven by our work with the Campion Advocacy Fund impact film partner Project Impact. 

The Arctic - Our Last Great Wilderness hero.jpg

6 Million Strong: Youth Voices Make a Difference

By early January, thousands of Gen-Z youth (mostly aged 12-22) used the footage, made and shared their own videos, encouraged their friends to do the same, and most important of all, took action by writing letters. An unprecedented 6 million comments were delivered to the Fish and Wildlife Service, stopping seismic testing in its tracks. (Watch the celebration video made by Arctic TikTok champion Alex Haraus!)

Youth wrote messages from the heart. Some wrote in solidarity with the Gwich’in and Inupiat peoples of the Arctic. Others shared their fears that drilling would worsen the climate crisis and endanger their futures. Many wrote about their love of wildlife and asked that the government protect the polar bears and caribou of the Arctic.

Shaun Sanchez, the Acting Chief of the U.S. Wildlife Refuge System, Fish and Wildlife Service responded to the campaign saying:

“I’m really excited and humbled that so many young people used the tools available to them, like TikTok, to communicate and make their voices heard. It’s super important for the Fish and Wildlife Service to hear from the American people, to make sure we’re managing their National Wildlife Refuges the way we want to see them managed.” (watch full video on TikTok)

The power of beautiful imagery merged with the passion of a rising generation of conservation leaders. Aided by Arctic champions who have worked for decades to protect this place, an empowered youth across the world used their voices and saw how their actions made a difference. These actions were credited with stopping the seismic testing in its tracks… for the moment.

Permanent Protections for the Refuge: Build Back Better and Beyond

January 20th is the one year anniversary of the federal announcement that all oil and gas leases would be halted in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was a huge victory - but we still need to enact permanent protections for the Refuge. Leases already sold need to be officially voided. This would require walking back a provision from the 2017 Tax Act, which allowed a lease sale in the first place.

The Build Back Better bill currently being considered by Congress, which has been endorsed by Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, could provide a path forward for permanent protection. Build Back Better is much bigger than just protecting the Arctic - it would provide much needed support for climate resiliency and public land preservation efforts across the country, including here in Washington State.

Braided River and The Mountaineers recognize the ongoing, hard work ahead to protect our incredible lands and waters, and the existential threat that climate change poses to our communities and to recreation. We’re ready to keep pushing for protection for our lands, waters, and wildlife in 2022. 

We are so grateful to our community of members, volunteers, readers, and advocates who have supported our work to preserve beautiful places of ecological and cultural importance for over 20 years. 

mage of Arctic Refuge Caribou close up. Photo by Florian Schulz, of Arctic Refuge Caribou. Photo by Florian Schulz,

So thank you for being here with us. As you read this, caribou paw the snow for lichen and the land rests in anticipation of the millions of migrating birds that will arrive in spring - in a place that is at once so far, and yet so near to us all. May it long continue.

With donor support, Braided River is committed to using awe-inspiring images in tactical, innovative ways to protect wild places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We don’t work alone - these campaigns are impactful because they are created in communion with the Gwich’in and Inupiat Peoples of the Arctic, with grassroots environmental justice coalitions, with hunters and anglers, with visionary donors, with policy makers - and with you. We hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible gift to support Braided River’s commitment to high-impact publishing and conservation campaigns.

lead image of Arctic Refuge Wildlife. Photo by Florian Schulz,