Early this morning Alaska time, the Department of Interior issued a pre-publication notice announcing that tomorrow, April 20th, they will initiate the scoping for an Environmental Impact Statement on leasing in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. Tomorrow’s publication will initiate a 60-day public comment period, and the Department of Interior will hold public meetings in Alaska communities.
The Notice of Intent is the first step in putting into action the requirement to lease in the Coastal Plain, which Senator Lisa Murkowski included in an unrelated federal tax bill voted into law last December. Despite the calls, letters, and personal visits from constituents, and bipartisan support for the Refuge in the House, she chose to vote for this bill, abandoning her previous stance on protecting Alaskans’ health care, and setting this reckless and undemocratic process into motion. The Coastal Plain, often referred to as the “1002 area” for its administrative designation in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), is a narrow strip of land between the northern slope of the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea, and serves as the calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The Gwich’in Nation of Alaska and Canada rely on the Porcupine Herd for food and cultural security, and have long fought for protection of this vital habitat. The region exemplifies the complexity and interconnectedness of Arctic habitats: beyond the millennia-old relationships between people and caribou, the Coastal Plain provides rich habitat for migratory birds, polar bears, and other Arctic mammals, which, in ways both subtle and obvious, depend on the land and on each other. In Gwich’in, it is called Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, translated as “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins. Activist and scholar Subhankar Banerjee describes it as a “vast transnational nursery.”
Its unfortunate ANILCA designation, though, has made it the target of a long line of pro-development administrations, a legacy our current president seemingly stumbled into unwittingly when industry-sponsored politicians encouraged him to make development a priority.
The administration’s timing leaves no doubt as to their values and priorities. The Notice of Intent will be published on the 8th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed and injured workers and irrevocably damaged coastal ecosystems. On Sunday, April 22nd, Americans will celebrate Earth Day, founded in 1970 by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson after he’d witnessed the impacts of an oil spill off the California coast. The record-breaking warmth and changes in sea ice that Alaska experienced over the winter offered further evidence of climate change’s impacts on our region, and the need to shift away from the boom and bust of fossil fuel dependence – both for the sake of our economy and our ecology (and they are, after all, inextricably linked by a shared root word which essentially means “home,” and how we relate to it and to each other).
This political push to undo long-defended protections and compromise the legacy of Arctic Refuge stewardship by the Gwich’in Nation and their allies is a direct affront to those who value a healthy, livable planet. Governor Bill Walker described today’s move to desecrate the Coastal Plain as “historic,” and one which he is “proud to move forward.” Alongside the statement from Gwich’in Steering Committee executive director Bernadette Demientieff that “we need to protect the coastal plain because it gives us life. It makes us who we are. Those who attempt to exploit this sacred place have taken aim at our communities and human rights,” Governor Walker’s version of history becomes very clear.
However, despite our elected leaders’ insistence that this move represents Alaskans’ wishes, we continue to speak out against irresponsible development of our most sacred and treasured landscapes. In a press statement issued this morning, Native and non-Native Alaskans reaffirmed our commitment to standing with the Gwich’in Nation and fighting these attacks.
In the coming weeks, Alaskans will continue to work for and defend our home. We will speak out with our Native sisters and brothers as they fight for their human rights, and we will work for a diverse, just economy that offers safe, sustainable employment without putting our resources or our lives at risk. We will carry with us the words of today’s leaders, like Tonya Garnett, Executive Director Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, who says, “We need to protect our ancestral lands and sacred places for our future generations, so that they may be able to experience the beauty of our culture and history. It’s heartbreaking to think they might live a life not knowing the significance of sacred places. I want to make my ancestors proud. Protect the caribou! Protect the Arctic Refuge!”
We will remember the words of Arctic Refuge advocates like Margaret Murie, who said in 1964, “I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by, or so poor she cannot afford to keep them.”
Because that is the right thing to do when your home, and the home of your neighbors, is under attack.