Department of Interior Leadership Rushes Development in Arctic Refuge Communities Stands In Firm Opposition

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Published March 8, 2018

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA – In a quick response to the unexpected visit of top U.S. Department of Interior officials, more than 50 community members rallied outside the public library. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt and Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Joe Balash held a last minute meeting with local DOI employees and Fairbanks community members swiftly gathered to greet them in firm opposition to development in the Arctic Refuge. The U.S. DOI visit indicates that this administration will expedite leasing in the Arctic Refuge without full consideration of its impacts on the ecosystem of those that survive off of it. This is in direct contradiction to Sen. Murkowski’s promises to have an “environmentally robust” timeline.

“As a Gwich’in woman, I am very troubled with such a rushed process for leasing. Protecting the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas is a human rights issue for the Gwich’in. We rely on the caribou and the caribou rely on the Coastal Plain. Any process that the Department of the Interior takes must fully engage all of the tribes that could be impacted, and must do so in a meaningful and respectful way,” said Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

Senator Murkowski expects this visit from DOI leadership to be “really significant” for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge development, however many in Alaska and in particular tribal leadership were unaware of the DOI’s visit until the day before their arrival. The Arctic Refuge was the only rider on the deeply unpopular 2017 tax bill that was passed into law just months ago.

Nuutaq Simmons, an Inupiaq elder originally from Utgiavik (formerly Barrow), pointed out that many North Slope Inupiaq people stand in solidarity with the Gwich’in in their opposition to drilling in the Arctic Refuge. “We have to take care of our neighbors….not everybody on the Slope is for opening the Refuge. There are many of us Inupiat who stand with the Gwich’in.”

Siqiniq Maupin, a Fairbanks resident whose family is from the North Slope, described the cultural and spiritual importance of caribou and wild foods that would be threatened by oil development in the Arctic Refuge. “When I get to see my children eating this food that feeds their mental health and their physical well-being, it makes me feel connected to our ancestors; it give me hope.”

Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition coordinator Jessica Girard noted at the demonstration that “We will not stand for Alaska to be decimated by further development while we watch the climate rapidly change around us.  We will not stand for development of the Arctic Refuge especially as it is being done without public input and meaningful tribal consultation. ”

Princess Daazhrai Johnson, a member of the Gwich’in Nation and a mother, blasted the anti-democratic way in which Alaska’s lawmakers have pursued oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge. “It is truly disturbing that our members of congress, and our delegation, is taking advantage of a corrupt administration. Our human rights are being violated right now. Democracy is being violated for greed, for a few dollars, Murkowski, Sullivan, young …we’re watching, we see what’s happening. You sold us out with that tax bill.”

Terry Chapin, an ecologist and professor emeritus at UAF, said that there were many ways to meet Alaskans’ economic needs without the destructive consequences of oil development. Speaking of the refuge ecosystems, he said, “It’s not something you can just throw away for a decade and then hope that it’ll come back…there’s so many better ways  to accomplish what could be done by taking oil out of the Arctic Refuge,” such as by developing wind and solar energy, he said.

“We are rallying today in solidarity with the Gwich’in and their way of life. And we are rallying today with many Alaskans who understand that we are in a state economic crisis because we have built an economy too dependent on oil and gas development and continuing along that path is detrimental and unwise economic planning; spending scarce state dollars in a desperate attempt to continue down a failing economy forsakes our children’s future,” said Enei Begaye, local resident and member of the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition and Defend the Sacred AK.

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