MEMO: Trump rushes to drill Arctic Refuge land sacred to imperiled Gwich’in people

May 10, 2018


Trump rushes to drill Arctic Refuge land sacred to imperiled Gwich’in people

TO: National Energy and Environmental Reporters

FROM: Tim Woody, Alaska Communications Manager, The Wilderness Society,, 907-223-2443

DATE: May 10, 2018

Taking the first step in a process that could doom the Arctic’s indigenous Gwich’in culture, the U.S. Department of the Interior has begun scoping for an environmental impact statement on a proposed oil and gas lease sale on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of President Trump’s single-minded pursuit of “energy dominance.”

For thousands of years, the Gwich’in have sustained their people and culture by relying on the Porcupine Caribou Herd as well as salmon, migratory waterfowl and other subsistence resources in the Arctic Refuge. Drilling on the coastal plain could displace the caribou from the biological heart of the refuge, to which the caribou migrate annually to give birth and nurse their calves.

“If drilling happened and affected the Porcupine herd,” Arctic Village Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert wrote in the Anchorage Daily News in 2015, “its future would be threatened. And so would the Gwich’in people and our villages. If the caribou lose land, we will lose caribou. Without them, we cannot feed our families or teach our young people the traditional subsistence way of life.”


Government Ignores Gwich’in Voices

The stakes for the refuge’s sensitive and irreplaceable coastal plain—which is also important polar bear denning habitat—have never been higher, but Gwich’in leaders say federal officials are ignoring their pleas and don’t care that drilling on the coastal plain would threaten Gwich’in culture.

“It is frustrating that there’s people making decisions about our homelands and about the future of our people without even involving us,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee said at a March protest in Fairbanks.

The administration’s move ends nearly 40 years of bipartisan protection for the Arctic Refuge, and follows Trump’s admission that he “really didn’t care” about Arctic Refuge drilling until a friend encouraged him to pursue it. The action is pegged to a rider in the 2017 tax legislation that polls suggest would never have passed as a stand-alone bill. The rider paved the way for oil drilling in the environmentally fragile 1.5-million acre coastal plain of the iconic refuge in northeastern Alaska.


A Violation of Public Trust

During a trip to Alaska that included a visit to the North Slope in early March, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Joe Balash spoke at an industry gathering in Anchorage and expressed the Trump administration’s desire to pursue an aggressive timeline for oil and gas exploration and drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “We expect to move pretty quickly on that project,” Bernhardt said.

“The Department of the Interior is pursuing an irresponsibly aggressive timeline for Arctic Refuge drilling that reflects the Trump administration’s eagerness to turn over America’s public lands to private industry for development. They are taking reckless shortcuts that are a terrible violation of public trust,” said Jamie Williams, The Wilderness Society’s president.

As you inform your readers about potential oil and gas exploration and drilling in the refuge, we hope you will include coverage of this unacceptable assault on America’s public lands and an existential threat to the indigenous Gwich’in people.


Drilling in the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins”

At 19.3 million acres, the Arctic Refuge is America’s largest wildlife refuge and provides habitat for caribou, polar bear and migrating birds from across the globe, and a diverse range of wilderness lands. Its coastal plain—stretching north from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean—provides vital denning habitat for endangered polar bears and is the calving ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which contains nearly 200,000 animals.

Gwich’in people call the coastal plain Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, which translates to the Sacred Place Where Life Begins. The Porcupine herd is key to their food security and cultural identity. They call Arctic Refuge drilling a threat to their survival, and a matter of human rights.

Under the guise of “energy dominance,” Trump is attempting to destroy one of the wildest and most isolated places in North America, with no regard for the concerns of the Gwich’in people.

Oil and gas drilling would have devastating impacts on this pristine and fragile ecosystem, caused by the massive infrastructure needed to extract and transport oil. Drilling in the Arctic is risky, would fragment vital habitat and result in chronic spills of oil and other toxic substances onto the fragile tundra, and would forever scar this now pristine landscape and disrupt its wildlife.

Besides being the homeland of an indigenous people, the Arctic Refuge is a national treasure, and we have a moral obligation to protect it for the Gwich’in, our children and our grandchildren.

After a lengthy scientific review that incorporated much public input, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended in 2015 that most of the non-designated wilderness lands in the Arctic Refuge be designated wilderness, including the coastal plain. The agency received nearly a million public comments in support of this action, including from scientists, biologists and researchers. The Arctic Refuge is simply too wild to drill.

This could be our last opportunity to save the Gwich’in culture and one of America’s last great wild places. Generations of Americans have opposed drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and now we must protect it for generations to come.