Sometimes referred to as America’s Serengeti, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is witness to the largest land mammal migration on the planet. It sees millions of migratory birds every year that tour through six continents. This coastal plain, located in the Northeast corner of Alaska, is nothing short of a natural wonder.
The ANWR currently under threat. Adam Kolton, Executive Director of the Alaska Wilderness League explains: “It’s a place that Republicans and Democrats had joined forces to the defend … until the 2017 Tax Act was signed into law by President Trump, which had a drilling mandate for the Arctic Refuge.”
Oil was first found in Alaska in 1968. The area now known as Pluto Bay began as one giant oil field, and today encompasses more than 5,000 square miles of oil development east and west of ANWR. Before the 2017 Tax Act, the ANWR coastal plain was the sole region legally designated off-limits to oil and gas exploration and development in the Arctic coastal landscape of Alaska.
Politicians and businessmen have been fighting to open ANWR to drilling for decades. In 1989 the Exxon Valdez incident drew awareness around the risks of oil drilling and transportation in Alaska and the issue was dropped for a period of time. After the Persian Gulf War, “President George H. W. Bush made another go at it, and the measure was defeated again with lots of bipartisan opposition in the Senate through a filibuster,” Adam explained. In the mid-90s, when Republicans took control of the House, they made another attempt, which President Clinton vetoed. And another when George W. Bush was elected.
Finally in 2017, when Republicans had control of the House, the Senate, and the White House, a rider slipped into the 2017 tax bill opened ANWR to drilling. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was able to include a provision in the tax bill that circumvented the normal 60 vote threshold that controversial issues would usually have to overcome.
The Alaska Wilderness League is the one national organization whose sole focus is to protect Alaska’s wild places, its public lands and waters. “We’ve been rallying opposition across the country to this drilling scheme,” Adam said. “We and our partners in both Alaska and nationally, among other conservation groups, indigenous rights groups, veterans, faith leaders, and many others have been building and orchestrating a strong, diverse, broad coalition to restore protections for the Arctic Refuge.”
This involves raising awareness and inspiring action among millions of Americans, and putting pressure on banks to refuse to finance drilling. “There have been more than two dozen international financial institutions that have said they’re not willing to finance any leasing activity in the Arctic Refuge, so that puts pressure on oil companies to stay out,” Adams said. “We’ve been building support in Congress. We’ve been fighting in the corporate board rooms, and we’ve been taking our case to court.” There have been four lawsuits brought against the Trump administration’s drilling plans, including by 15 states’ attorneys general, and two different environmental lawsuits, one of which includes the Gwich’in Steering Committee.
As Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Bernadette Demientieff has made it her work to use her voice for those who can’t — which, in the case of the ANWR, include the Porcupine caribou that rely on the land to live and breed. Bernadette is a mother of five and a grandmother of five (with another on the way), and she wants to ensure that her kids are able to continue living off the land as she and her ancestors have. “This is their birthright.”
“We’re told that a piece of the caribou heart lies within us and a piece of our heart lies within the caribou,” Bernadette said. “We are caribou people. I know that some will never understand that, but it’s true. Even when I think about them, my heart feels nothing but love. And that’s why I really use my voice for them.”
Bernadette was raised in Fort Yukon and spent her summers in Venetie, where she learned how to fish. From before she can even remember, she has known that the Arctic Refuge was sacred land. “I don’t ever remember our elders, or my mom, or anybody ever sitting me down and saying that this place is sacred to our people,” she said. “It’s like I’ve always known it.”
“We were raised to know that place is off-limits. You don’t go there. Even during times of food shortage and starvation, we never lived there. That’s how sacred it is to our people.” In Gwich’in, the land is known as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or the sacred place where life begins. That’s because it’s the birthing and nursery grounds of the Porcupine caribou — and has been for millennia.
The species’ wintering grounds are in the Canadian Yukon territory, and every year, they make the pilgrimage all the way to these coastal plains to give birth to 40,000 calves in two weeks. “This is the route that they have to take — through rivers, they even float down the ice. They’re very, very intelligent, and just majestic,” Bernadette said. In fact, the Porcupine caribou arethe last living mammals on the planet that migrate that distance.
“Our creation story tells us that there is a time we were able to communicate with the caribou, and that we made a vow to take care of each other.” -Bernadette Demientieff
“For over 20,000 years, we migrated alongside the caribou, and when the government came in, they made us settle,” Bernadette explained. “Our ancestors settled on the migratory route so that we could continue to live beside the caribou, but because of climate change, a lot of our communities no longer get the caribou. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have that connection. We still eat caribou. It’s our food, it’s our way of life. All our songs, stories, and dances are directed at the caribou.”
According to Bernadette, the Gwich’in tradition is to take only what you need. When hunting, she said, “you don’t shoot the calf, and you don’t shoot the male because the male is showing that calf the route—just like we do with our children. And we don’t shoot the leaders.”
When it comes to drilling prospects in the region, and the 2017 Tax Act that opened up the area to oil interests, Bernadette considers it nothing short of a human rights violation. “This is not just about our food security,” she said. “This is about our spiritual and cultural connection to these animals and to the land. When it is affected, we all become affected.”
Birds migrate there from six continents, and their droppings help food grow for animals. This sustenance grows just in time for the caribou and their offspring to feed. The wind from the ocean drives dangerous mosquitoes and bugs away from newborn calves. “It’s a whole system and it needs every part to work,” Bernadette said.
“We’re not asking for jobs, for oil, for offices, for schools. We’re simply asking to be left alone. We’re asking to live off the land and the animals that have sustained us for thousands of years.” -Bernadette Demientieff
By entering one of the most remote and wild places to drill for oil, Adam argued, you face a number of challenges. Aside from the enormous impact on indigenous populations, companies are finding instability in existing infrastructure. After all, research shows that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. “We’re seeing all kinds of crazy ideas to use coolers to keep the permafrost frozen so that the structure can be maintained,” Adam said.
“I think that there’s a certain element of this that’s become ‘fool’s gold’ in Alaska,” Adam said. “Here is a state that is unfortunately too dependent on oil and gas for its economy. The state has no state sales tax, no state income taxes, the lowest gas taxes in the country. And most importantly, it gets dividend checks to every person in Alaska from this, so you can understand how there’s a certain desire to keep the gravy train going.”
“The challenge with that is that we’re facing an enormous climate crisis and we desperately, globally, need to transition away from fossil fuels,” he continued. “There are still, within the existing fields that are already in production in Alaska, many years worth of oil that will continue to keep the trans-Alaska pipeline flowing for some time.” Opening up the ANWR to drilling is “a long-term bet, a 70-year bet—with the first drop of oil coming 10 years from now. Not only is it reckless and dangerous for our climate, it’s reckless and dangerous for Alaska’s future.”
“When are you going to begin to invest your resources in building a more sustainable economy for a future that really enables Alaska to flourish during a time of transition away from fossil fuels?” -Adam Kolton
Evidence of climate change’s effects on the region is all over the place. As Bernadette noted, “It’s changing our rivers. Our lakes are drying up. There are muskrats that haven’t been seen in areas before. We had ticks on our moose last year. We had thousands of dead fish in our rivers and lakes — and a lot of fish that were caught had burn marks and sores on them. There are dead birds literally falling out of the sky. Our men are going out hunting and it’s getting more dangerous. They’re falling through ice during times when it should be frozen.”
Last summer, the Gwich’in Steering Committee hosted an Indigenous Climate Summit in Fort Yukon, where people from all across Alaska came together and contributed to an upcoming report on the state of the area. “Besides having my kids, this is what I am most proud of,” Bernadette said.
The first Gwich’in gathering held in over 150 years was in 1988, when the elders organized a Gwich’in Steering Committee “and gave us directions to go out and tell the world that we are here. To do it a good way, and to not compromise our position.”
“Do it in a good way,” Bernadette repeated. “That’s a very simple sentence. But it’s not always easy, especially when you’re up against a corrupt government. So I try to follow their direction and not be angry and bitter.”
I asked Bernadette what she made of these traditional ways of life in a modernized world. She recalled her past trips to New York. “There, it’s like a concrete jungle. People choose to live that way. We choose to live on our land. When I come back, I have to eat native food. We go onto the land to go camping. We go out on the boat. We go snowmachine riding. We are spiritually connected to our land, to our water, to our animals. That’s our survival.”
That’s what protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, is about at the end of the day. Survival. “These oil and gas developments, they are short-term commitments,” Bernadette said. “You can’t destroy something that’s going to help us survive for another thousand years.”
Adam echoed the sentiment. “We believe that fish and wildlife have value in and of themselves, not simply for the benefit of people. There are certain responsibilities we have to ensure that vast, free-roaming populations of wildlife can still range the way that they always have. This is the wildest place left in America. This is really a critical fight.”
“As goes the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, so goes our climate, so goes our commitment to public lands and biodiversity,” he added.
Learn more about the Alaska Wilderness League, and how you can get involved, here.