Sierra Club and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

  • Organisation Sierra Club
  • Main Website URL
  • Authors Pat Joseph, Writer/Editor; Mike Papciak, Website Manager & Webmaster; and Adrian Cotter, Senior Webmaster
  • Tools Used Google Earth, Google Maps
"If the 5,000 people who took a look at the feature were even a tiny bit more inspired to work the issue with their elected representatives, who's to say it didn't put us over the top?"

— Eric Antebi, former National Press Secretary, Sierra Club

Note: Case study written in 2005.

The Sierra Club's motto is "Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet". As the oldest and largest grassroots environmental organisation in America, we have either led or been instrumental in nearly all of the major conservation campaigns in America. Currently, we are focused on smart energy solutions and green lifestyles as ways to curb runaway global warming.

Google Earth was one of the most popular exhibitors at the Sierra Summit, the Club's national convention, which was held in San Francisco's Moscone Centre in September, 2005. The event took place shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the US, so interest in the region's geography was high. Attendees were amazed to see the "before and after" imagery of New Orleans and to hear stories of rescuers using Google Earth to locate some of those stranded in the flood.

At the Sierra Summit, members of the web team received a guided tour of the programme, including Rebecca Moore's flyover of a proposed logging operation in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was immediately and abundantly clear that Google Earth could be a powerful tool in helping environmental organisations highlight habitat and land protection issues.

Protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge had long been a top priority for the Club, and in 2005 Congress was threatening to open the area to oil and gas drilling (pro-drilling forces were trying to include projected oil revenue from ANWR drilling in a defence spending bill). Google Earth seemed like a perfect way to show - not just tell - people what was at stake in the remote locale.

How they did it

The project team was composed of three people: Mike Papciak, Adrian Cotter and Pat Joseph. Adrian was the key member, as he did all of the data sourcing, graphics and coding involved in actually creating the KML. Pat helped with writing and research for the text that accompanied the maps. Mike managed the project and created the landing page on our site, where visitors could find and download the KML.

We got the data from public sources: the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Alaska Centre for the Environment. Most of the KML was generated directly from Google Earth. However, for the oil well data, we used Excel and regular expressions in Home site to convert a tab-delimited set of data in to well-formed KML. Some of the Fish and Wildlife data we got was more complex than needed (or than most users would want), so we essentially traced the original boundaries using the path tool in Google Earth to create a simpler data set.

The map focuses on Alaska's North Slope and includes boundary lines for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It highlights the contested 1002 Area-the coastal plain coveted by oil interests. The National Petroleum Reserve and the active oil fields around Prudhoe Bay are also featured. Additionally, the map includes Inupiat, Gwich'in and other human settlements, as well as the migratory routes of the Porcupine caribou herd and other wildlife in the region. Finally, we were able to trace the path of the trans-Alaskan pipeline and locate the thousands of active oil wells across the state of Alaska and on the North Slope, in particular. The idea is to show that ANWR is not the "barren nothingness" the oil lobby claims and that most of the North Slope is already heavily exploited. We are merely trying to save the last five per cent of the land as wilderness. We also used Google Maps. We took most of the data from the KMZ and converted it into a Google Maps version. We simplified some of the data further and left out some of the heftier sources. One of the nice things about Google Maps is that you can more easily script the experience and place it in a context. Of course, you have to know how use JavaScript to do this.

Our main challenge was finding appropriate data that was in the right format and that we had the right to use. We got a lot of help from the Alaska Centre for the Environment in finding public sources for data. (This project was completed in early 2006. We realise there are more sources of information now.)

Another challenge was to find a way to present the user with some guideposts to help lead them through the file. This mostly involved creating graphics that we placed on the map. Now that we know what we can and cannot do, it's easier to plan the story we want to tell, write the text and find images before we even set foot in the programme. It's easier to do the editing and prep work beforehand.

Questions to ask about drilling for oil in ANWR.

"It's as simple as seeing is believing." - Pat Joseph, Sierra Club's current affairs editor to National Geographic News


The KML was published on our website, which we publicised with a press release and on our blogs: Taking the Initiative and Compass. We also publicised it on the Google Earth Community BBS. It was featured in a Sierra Magazine article (autumn, 2007) on Google Earth as a mapping tool that grassroots environmental activists - not just GIS specialists - can use to excellent effect. It was also featured in the National Geographic News.

The impact of our ANWR map is difficult to gauge, but we do know that repeated proposals to open the refuge to drilling have been narrowly defeated and that it remains off-limits to oil and gas drilling. Did our KML make a difference? As Eric Antebi, our national press secretary at the time, told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, "If the 5,000 people who checked out the feature were even a tiny bit more inspired to work the issue with their elected representatives, who's to say it didn't put us over the top?"

We think the existing oil wells KMZ file has the most impact. It's an immediately comprehensible graphical display of the huge number of wells already in operation in Alaska. We also find powerful the display of the small amount of ANWR land that we're trying to keep off-limits to drilling. The unspoken question the map poses is: "Look how much you already have for drilling. Can't you just leave this little slice here?"

Oil wells in Alaska.