America’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is under direct attack. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently released a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) in preparation for oil exploration and drilling in the calving grounds of the porcupine caribou herd on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. Just as BLM endangers the health and safety of indigenous communities in New Mexico by drilling for oil and gas near Chaco Canyon, BLM is downplaying the dangers of drilling on indigenous homelands in Alaska.
They are disregarding science and dismissing valid concerns about the health of what we call “the sacred place where all life begins.” This misguided rush disrespects long-held popular and bipartisan protections for the Arctic Refuge. It’s yet another example of the Trump administration’s contempt for indigenous rights in the push to sell out our public lands to big oil companies.
For decades, the Gwich’in people have spoken in unified opposition to drilling the Arctic Refuge. The Arctic Refuge is our ancestral homeland, and it has sustained us for thousands of years. The migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd flows through the Gwich’in homeland. Protecting the caribou herd is more than just good sense, it’s a matter of our sustenance and our basic human rights. The caribou are essential to our spiritual and cultural life, and their calving grounds on the Coastal Plain must not be disturbed. Drilling there threatens the caribou migrations and would cause lower birth rates, risking everything we hold dear.
More than just Gwich’in, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge belongs to all Americans, and drilling the refuge continues to be widely opposed by the American people. According to recent polling, 70 percent of American voters oppose drilling in the Arctic Refuge, yet the BLM has hosted only one public hearing across the continental United States on proposed Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling. This hurried and flawed process shows this administration’s suppression of public participation, making it clear it would rather discourage public input than provide a fair opportunity to demonstrate public support for America’s largest national wildlife refuge and the people and wildlife that depend on it to survive.
Despite promising a robust, scientifically sound review process, the administration has repeatedly cut corners at every step of this process by placing arbitrary deadlines and limitations on its environmental review. Drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain would devastate an Arctic nursery of global significance. It would jeopardize food security and threaten the health and safety of indigenous communities and escalate the crisis of climate change.
The Arctic Refuge is one of our nation’s treasures. In addition to the caribou, it’s also home to denning polar bears, musk oxen, wolves and nearly 200 species of migratory birds. Its biological heart, the coastal plain, is no place for oil and gas development. The Arctic Refuge is not just a piece of land with oil underneath; it is the heart of the Gwich’in people and our way of life. Caribou are not just what we eat; they are who we are. They are in our dances, our stories and songs and the whole way we see the world. The caribou provide us with food, clothing, shelter and tools. In return, we owe them the safety of a healthy ecosystem where they can give birth, free from drilling forever. Our very survival depends upon it.
Bernadette Demientieff joined leaders from Iñupiaq and Diné nations and New Mexico congressional staff at the University of New Mexico this week to speak on the Arctic Refuge.