FAIRBANKS — A group of more than 50 protesters gathered in front of the Noel Wien Public Library Tuesday afternoon to speak out against the continued movement to develop the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil.
The rally was planned in less than 24 hours after members of the activist group Defend the Sacred learned that Department of Interior officials Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Assistant Secretary of the Interior Joe Balash would be visiting Fairbanks to speak with local DOI employees about lease sales in ANWR.
“There have been really not a lot of notifications from the Department of Interior about their arrival in Alaska. It seems that there will be a big announcement this week about the ANWR and so we’re going to stand in solidarity with the Gwich’in people who were not informed of these meetings at all to show that we do not agree with this development and or the expeditious nature of working to get leasing sales before 2020,” said Jessica Girard, a spokesperson for Defend the Sacred.
The rally opened in song before a series of speakers from other environmental groups in town.
“I’m here on behalf of the Gwich’in Nation just to let everybody know that we have not backed down from protecting the Arctic Refuge,” said Bernadette Demientieff, director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We are going to continue to stand strong in love and in unity, and we will continue to do this in a good way.”
Demientieff said the way in which this legislation was adopted was wrong.
“It is frustrating that there’s people making decisions about our homelands and about the future of our people without even involving us,” Demientieff said. “So we’re outside trying to make a statement and that is to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, protect the Gwich’in way of life and we will continue to move forward to protect the Porcupine Caribou herd. They are a huge part of our identity and we will not defer from fighting to protect them.”
Enei Begaye, director of the Native Movement organization, echoed many of Demientieff’s concerns.
“This is a circumvention of democracy and due process and we just found out about this meeting last night. We’re not here to protest to our local DOI employees. We’re here to carry the message to our interior deputy director. And each one of the folks here today is representing so many others,” Begaye said.
While the Porcupine caribou herd sustains the Gwich’in people, other Native cultures were present during the rally to stand in solidarity.
“I stand with the Gwich’in. We have to take care of our neighbors. Not everybody on the slope is for opening the ANWR. There are many of us, Inupiat, who stand with the Gwich’in,” said Doreen Simmonds, an Inupiaq woman from Utqiagvik.
Princess Johnson, a member of the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, had a strong message to Alaska’s congressional delegation on the matter.
“It’s incredibly troubling, but what gives me hope and optimism is to see that in less than 24 hours that this many Alaskans can show up and say, ‘Hey, we’re here, we feel very strongly about this’,” Johnson said. “This is serious and the fact that we’re standing out here and letting our voices be heard, Murkowski, Sullivan, Young, we are watching you. We see exactly what’s going on, what happened with that tax bill. You sold us out with that tax bill and we’re keeping track and we’re going to elect new people to really reflect our values.”
The rally gained support from other local activist and environmental groups as well, including the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.
“We weren’t directly involved in this event but certainly are against development in the refuge and stand in solidarity with Defend the Sacred and their cause,” said Elisabeth Balster Dabney, executive director of the center.
Contact staff writer Erin Granger at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.