The United State Department of the Interior has found itself the defendant in two separate lawsuits both levied over steps to expand oil drilling in Northern Alaska. 

One lawsuit alleges violations of Indigenous rights and environmental law in opening lease sales in the 1.56 million-acre Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The other seeks to block drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska, a 23 million-acre section of the North Slope.

The first lawsuit, filed by the Gwich’in Nation Monday, includes complaints made under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act alleging Indigenous rights guaranteed under that act have been violated. 

The 70-page lawsuit also invokes the rights of the Canadian Gwich’in people. The Porcupine caribou herd that calves in the area of the ANWR in question travels between Alaska and Canada and is subject to the U.S.-Canada Treaty. Co-plaintiffs on the suit include the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. 

The central plaintiff, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, represents the interests of members of the Gwich’in Nation in both Canada and Alaska. 

Bernadette Demientieff is the executive director of the committee and has long been a central figure in the fight against development in the refuge. 

“As our ancestors before us, we will stand and fight for our future generations, for the Porcupine caribou herd, and the Gwich’in way of life. We will not allow BLM or DOI to come into our ancestral homelands and do as they please, not when the survival of future generations is at risk,” Demientieff said in a statement following the lawsuit filing. “This short term gain is not worth the thousands and thousands of years of history that our ancestors passed down from generation to generation.”

The area of the refuge open for development is referred to by the Gwich’in people as “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” Jody Potts, Han Gwich’in leader for Eagle Village, explained. 

“The Trump Administration’s complete and utter disregard for the human rights of the Gwich’in people is apparent as he continues the attack on the Arctic Refuge,” Potts said. “For anyone in this world, food security is a huge concern, especially during this pandemic, but even more so for Indigenous people who still rely on the land and animals for our food security.”

The second lawsuit, also filed Monday, was levied by a group of 12 environmental conservation organizations who oppose the opening of the NPR-A for oil exploration and development. 

Plaintiffs in the case include the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Alaska Wilderness League, Conservation Lands Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society.

The 31-page suit charges the U.S. Bureau of Land Management with breaking the law by advancing a new management plan for NPR-A that would open the vast majority of the reserve for development; a move that would “increase harmful climate impacts, diminish public health, degrade land, water and air, and encroach on long-protected areas vital to wildlife and people,” the groups say.

Both lawsuits were filed with the 9th Circuit District Court of Alaska. 

Oil exploration and development in both areas of Northern Alaska have been hotly contested for years and drawn staunch opposition from Indigenous people from the areas as well as environmental conservation groups and support from oil companies and many of Alaska’s Republican politicians including all three members of the current congressional delegation who worked to include the opening of ANWR in President Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. 

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.