Community Perspective

Alaskans continue to protect the Arctic refuge

No one paying attention to efforts to defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain from oil exploitation over the years would expect the conversation to end with a single signature, as the Daily News-Miner’s Feb. 16 editorial suggested it should have. This paper continues to echo the Alaska congressional delegation’s outdated talking points that paint their own constituents as “Outsiders” who get in the way of Alaska’s true purpose: to make money for multinational oil companies. It is not this paper’s job to resell oil and gas but to critically analyze and report on the events and decisions shaping Alaskans’ lives.

Protection of the refuge has had decades of bipartisan support, reflecting the more than 70% of Americans and the strong history of Alaskans who wish to see this sacred, iconic landscape honored for future generations. The Gwich’in Nation has repeatedly and unwaveringly demonstrated its commitment to protecting its homelands and the birthplace of the caribou that have sustained the Gwich’in people for millennia. As Bernadette Demientieff of the Gwich’in Steering Committee explained in a recent interview, “Our human rights are upheld by the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ... which states, ‘By no means shall a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence’ ... Oil and gas activities (on the coastal plain) are a direct attack on our ... rights.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski disregarded the rights of her constituents when she snuck a provision allowing leasing into the 2017 Tax and Jobs Act. It should surprise no one that a decades-long struggle to uphold generations of stewardship by indigenous people has not ended because this president is trying to sell off our public lands. The Tax and Jobs Act promised revenue from coastal plain leasing that, by all available evidence, is simply not feasible. Still, our delegation fights tooth and nail against attempts to hold the government accountable for procuring those funds, leaving many wondering who they work for: Alaskans or Outside companies seeking to profit from the lease sales?

The deliberate deceits didn’t end with the passage of the Tax and Jobs Act. Murkowski and other drilling proponents continue to claim that only 2,000 acres of the coastal plain would be impacted by industry activities. Even the most protective alternative described in the final environmental impact statement would allow pipelines, roads and drill pads to sprawl across at least 800,000 acres, right in the heart of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s birthing grounds. As observation and scientific study demonstrate again and again, most recently in a U.S. Geological Survey study published in December, caribou are indeed impacted by oil infrastructure, especially during the sensitive calving season.

Banks, asset managers and investors, however, are well aware of the ethical and financial liabilities of drilling in the Arctic refuge. Politics aside, the money doesn’t lie: Oil is on its way out, and Goldman Sachs and other banks are proactive in their commitment to “decline any financing transaction that directly supports new upstream Arctic oil exploration or development.” It’s bad business to fund the climate crisis and the human rights abuses that accompany it, and regardless of our home state, we should applaud those decisions.

Alaskans have been protecting our lands and waters since long before the oil industry arrived and will continue to do so long after. As Fairbanks conservation leader Ginny Wood said about founding the Alaska Conservation Society in order to work toward establishing what was then being called the Arctic National Wildlife Range in the 1950s, “... it’s our land ... We wanted to show that we were from Alaska. That we knew the place. We wanted to do things our own way, the Alaska way.”

And we have plenty of models for how to do things the Alaska way. We can look to young leaders like Quannah Chasing Horse Potts and Nanieezh Peter, who inspired the Alaska Federation of Natives to declare a climate emergency in October. We can look to villages around the state that recognize that fossil fuels don’t meet their needs and which are developing local, innovative energy solutions to serve their communities. We can look to the first Alaska Just Transition Summit, hosted last month in Fairbanks, which brought together tribal leaders, educators, business owners, labor representatives and many others to explore what Alaska’s post-oil future can look like.

The recent Daily News-Miner editorial does a disservice to Alaskans’ stories by removing them entirely from the discussion of the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We will continue to stand with the Gwich’in in defense of the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

Ryan Marsh is Arctic program manager at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks. Erica Watson is communications manager at the center.

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