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Victory in 6-Year Fight! Applause to Fish & Wildlife Service for Halting Yukon Flats Refuge Land Trade

Alaska Native and conservation groups applauded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for listening to public and tribal concerns by preferring the “No Land Exchange” alternative in its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge Proposed Land Exchange.

Victory in 6-Year Fight!  Applause to Fish & Wildlife Service for Halting Yukon Flats Refuge Land Trade

Yukon River

Alaska Native and conservation groups applauded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for listening to public and tribal concerns by preferring the “No Land Exchange” alternative in its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge Proposed Land Exchange released on March 12, 2010.

This victory culminated the groups' 6-year fight opposing the land swap that would have facilitated oil and gas development within the Yukon Flats Refuge.  On April 21, 2010, Alaska Regional Director Geoff Hasket signed the Final Record of Decision which nullified the draft land exchange "agreement in principle."  

“We commend the Fish and Wildlife Service for selecting the No Land Exchange alternative in the final EIS and we are glad they took our concerns seriously,” said Michael Peter, First Chief of Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government in Fort Yukon, Alaska.  [Click here for Community Perspective]

 “We are trying to protect our way of life and traditions,” said Chief Peter.  “Our tribe opposes the land trade and oil and gas development.  Clean waterways like Beaver Creek and the Yukon River are what sustain us.  It is not worth the risk of oil and gas development from oil spills and harm to the water, land and animals which would negatively impact our health and well being.  Global climate change is at our front door and instead there has to be better alternatives to sustain our communities with renewable energy resources.”  The Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in tribe in Fort Yukon and dozens of Alaska Native communities depend on the area for subsistence hunting and fishing.

The Final EIS noted additive effects to the refuge from oil and gas development combined with global climate change: “the Service is concerned that the proposed land exchange could magnify projected changes to Refuge resources from climate change…Water withdrawals, increased access, and infrastructure associated with oil and gas development could exacerbate climate change effects on Refuge resources.”

“We are glad the Fish and Wildlife Service has found No Land Exchange to be the environmentally preferred course of action in the Yukon Flats Refuge Final EIS,” said Pamela A. Miller, Arctic Program Director at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.  The agency acknowledged many public concerns including lack of hydrological information and that oil and gas development would result in habitat fragmentation affecting bears, moose, wolves and wolverines, impacts to fisheries and river habitats including the Beaver Creek Wild and Scenic River, and harm to proposed wilderness areas in the Yukon Flats Refuge.

“We are thankful the Fish and Wildlife Service is putting preference for the No Action alternative to uphold their mandate to preserve the Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge in the Final Environmental Impact Statement,” said Faith Gemmill, Executive Director of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL).  “We believe strongly that any oil and gas exploration or development within the Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge poses a threat to subsistence way of life of the Gwich’in people and our health and well being.  The primary beneficiaries of any oil and gas exploration and development in the Yukon Flats are the multi-national oil companies and the corporations who stand to profit, and Gwich’in will bear the brunt of all the impacts.” said Gemmill.

The vast majority (>90%) of over 100,000 public comments submitted to the agency had opposed the controversial land swap and subsequent oil development, including most of the testimony provided in public hearings and from many tribal governments.   The proposed land swap between the USFWS and the Doyon Corporation would have removed 110,000 acres of critical and irreplaceable wildlife habitat and wilderness from the Yukon Flats Refuge in Alaska to allow incompatible oil and gas development on the land. 

“We applaud the agency for listening to the vast majority of the public and reversing course by recognizing the adverse impacts to the refuge and choosing as its preferred alternative to halt the Yukon Flats land exchange,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Acting Alaska Regional Director of The Wilderness Society.  “We trust the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will carry the preferred alternative to its final decision.  Oil and gas exploration and development pose a threat to water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, subsistence cultures, and the wilderness and recreational values of the refuge and its adjacent public lands and it is not compatible with the purposes for which the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge was established.”

“The Yukon Flats Refuge constitutes the largest, most biologically productive boreal forest wetlands in North America,” said Fran Mauer, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “The proposed land swap scheme would have violated the most fundamental purposes of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act by facilitating incompatible oil and gas exploration and development in the refuge.” 

The Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing 11 million acres in eastern interior Alaska, includes some of the most productive Arctic wildlife habitat in North America. The wetlands, river floodplains, and forested lowlands of the refuge support the highest density of breeding ducks in Alaska, along with three species of salmon and hundreds of other birds, mammals, and fish species.

The agency's Final EIS noted that proposed oil and gas development facilitated by the land trade could require construction of at least 600 miles of roads and pipelines, airstrips, drilling pads, and gravel mines with an expected 300 crude oil and other spills.  A significant summer oil spill in Beaver Creek would travel 148 miles to the Yukon River in two days, contaminating soils and vegetation much of the way.  Additionally, vast amounts of water would be required from the Beaver Creek watershed to sustain the industrial activity.  The USFWS estimated more than 275 million gallons of surface water would be required for exploratory wells and development wells. 

At the heart of the land trade area, Beaver Creek Wild River was listed as one of America's Most Endangered Rivers in 2009 by American Rivers due to the risks from oil and gas development fostered by the swap.  Shortly after this national attention to the issue, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reversed a Bush-era policy by announcing "No Action" as their preferred alternative for the Yukon Flats land trade.   

“Alaskans know all too well about the negative consequences of oil and gas exploration and development like more than a toxic spill a day in the North Slope oil fields,” noted Pamela Miller.   “Renewable resources like solar, wind, and geothermal are Alaska’s future.”

 

 

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