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Community Perspective

Sullivan’s disregard for Alaskans’ concerns is a disservice to us all

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Sen. Dan Sullivan reflected in his May 3 address to the Alaska Legislature on the cancellation of his March 2020 speech as the pandemic reached Alaska and in-person gatherings were no longer an option.

The senator is not alone in taking stock of events that did or didn’t happen a year ago, as these Covid anniversaries stack up. 

For those working to protect Alaska’s lands and waters from unmitigated exploitation by multinational corporations, some of our early pandemic virtual events included the spring 2020 AIDEA meetings, when dozens of Alaskans called from around the state asking that state funds be spent on health services or small business support, not the private Ambler mining road that the state continues to throw money at despite opposition from local communities. 

Sen. Sullivan must not have attended those hearings, or he’d know how silly it sounds to blame the Biden administration for the 13 tribal resolutions of opposition to the road.

He must also have missed the Zoom hearings on the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the Willow Master Development Plan in April 2020. 

He would have heard the near-unanimous testimony from North Slope communities asking that the project be halted or at least paused until the pandemic ended, and the many concerns raised about its impacts on health, climate and wildlife. 

If he’d been there, it’s hard to imagine that he’d call the Willow Project something that “the vast majority of Alaskans had been seeking for decades.” 

Very few of us have been asked how we feel about this and other industrial megaprojects hundreds of miles from most of our homes. But the administrative record on this and many other projects Sen. Sullivan pleads with state legislators to defend makes it clear that most Alaskans who have been able to weigh in on the decision-making process have significant questions and concerns. 

Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA), the lead plaintiff in the case to stop the Willow project (and in which The Northern Center is also a plaintiff), has highlighted public testimony from North Slope planning processes in which residents describe unhealthy fish, changed migration patterns, and lack of study on the changes wrought by existing oil and gas drilling. Perhaps Sen. Sullivan should take a look.

Those hearings were the first for a project of this scale that the Bureau of Land Management conducted virtually. This format provided what became the agency’s blueprint for minimizing testimony from front-line Indigenous communities who would be most impacted by extraction projects. 

Nuiqsut tribal administrator Martha Itta told reporters at the time, “Before we were hit with Covid-19, the [tribal] leadership had demanded to BLM to do face to face consultations for more public input, but they cancelled three times. Then Covid-19 hit and they went ahead.”

Sullivan chooses to categorize anyone raising questions about multinational corporations’ vision for Alaska as a “radical environmentalist.” This phrase is meaningless when it’s used to refer to anyone — including Alaskans — advocating for something other than unrestrained extraction. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February to pause any construction on the Willow project. 

The Court cited the “irreparable harm” that gravel mining, and road construction would have on hunters’ ability to access wild foods in the region, and determined that the project had likely been approved by the BLM using a scientifically and legally deficient analysis. 

This decision is hardly a “gift given by national Democratic administrations,” as the senator stated, but a legal opinion issued by a high court based on documented hunting practices in the region.

Alaskans, like any group, are not a monolith in our beliefs and visions for what our state’s future can be. 

Each of us, undoubtedly, has a close friend or relative who advocates for vastly different solutions to the same problem, and whose genuine commitment to our shared community we would never question (even if we argue with them). But when our own senator calls Alaskans’ voices an “attack” on our way of life — especially when referring to Indigenous Alaskans speaking of their experience of living alongside the industries Sen. Sullivan seems to think he was elected to defend — we should all have some questions. 

You don’t have to look too hard to find that Native and non-Native Alaskans have been working to protect Arctic Alaska from harmful industry activities long before Sen. Sullivan arrived here, and will continue to do so.

Disagreement is inevitable. But misrepresentation and erasure serves no one, and the stakes are too high for a U.S. senator to continue to claim we are under attack by an imaginary bogeyman when he should be addressing the questions and concerns raised by his own constituents.

Lisa Baraff is the program director for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Erica Watson is the communications manager for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

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