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Protecting the sacred place where life begins

Imagine a place so vast and wild that every time you visit it, you see something new. Yet each time you see unique ecological patterns shaped by millennia of repeated annual cycles. it is on a grand scale as old as time. Here is a place where bands of white Dall sheep peer down on you from the cliffs above as you float north through the Brooks Range toward the coastal plain. In this vast wilderness, you see millions of birds come from all over the world to sing, feed, breed, and fledge their young. Where tens of thousands of caribou move back and forth across the coastal plain.

There between the Beaufort Sea and the Brooks Range, this sea of life feeds, gives birth, and avoids predators and mosquitoes. Here wolves and grizzly bears chase caribou. Grizzly bears boldly come into your camp. Here you can see 88 muskoxen in the course of one day as you float down the Canning River, seeing polar bears’ dens and their cubs in winter, lining the gravel crest of Icy Reef on the coast with their post-hole tracks in summer for miles. This is a place where a large lone wolf trots past your rest stop along the Hulahula River under the pale yellow light of a late summer evening as it seems briefly to pause and look you over.

Having personally witnessed all of that in this great wilderness is an unforgettable privilege in this place so vibrant that wildness runs through it like the blood of life. It is the gold standard for all wilderness areas: a magical place.

An undisturbed ecosystem slated for protection

The Arctic Refuge coastal plain is one of the world’s most extraordinary intact wilderness and wildlife areas, by any measure of ecological value or wilderness character. This has been officially reported through decades of detailed studies and by those who have traveled there and borne witness to those internationally unique values. It is the biological heart of this refuge the size of Maine. As an undisturbed ecosystem, it is also a benchmark standard to measure the health of the planet.

Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act PL 96-487 (ANILCA) in 1980 to establish four interrelated purposes for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: 1) to conserve the natural diversity of fish and wildlife, 2) to fulfill international treaty obligations, 3) to provide for continued local subsistence, and 4) to ensure water quality and quantity for fish and wildlife.

Sacrificing the future to oil interests?

In 2015, after extensive supporting public review, the US Department of the Interior (USDI) completed a revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Arctic Refuge as called for by ANILCA. They forwarded it to President Barack Obama who recommended that 12.28 million acres of the Arctic Refuge be designated by Congress as Wilderness Area under the Wilderness Act.

Two years later, Congress had taken no action on that Wilderness recommendation. Instead they erred in passing Section 20001 of PL 115-97, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Besides creating an unrealistic tax revenue expectation from coastal plain oil and gas development, the unintended consequence of Congress’s action is “termination legislation.” It will certainly force the Gwich’in to leave their way of life because of the irreparable harm that development will cause to their subsistence lifeways.

Steady erosion of the promise of protection

It is equally wrong to allow USDI to rush ahead with leasing plans that exceed the limits of PL 115-97 and would destroy the extraordinary wild natural values found there that those communities rely on for their very lifes’ way. Further, the administration failed to consider that development would hasten climate change on the coastal plain; provides an inadequate analysis of these negative outcomes, and does not meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

In enacting the 2017 Tax Cuts, Congress misguidedly added another purpose to the Arctic Refuge – to provide for an oil and gas program on the coastal plain. This additional purpose is totally inconsistent and incompatible with the legally established ANILCA purposes of the Refuge listed above. It will contravene those ANILCA purposes to cause lasting damage to animal and plant diversity, disrupt subsistence activities, upset water quality and quantity, and disregard international wildlife protection treaty obligations legally demanded by those ANILCA purposes. USDI failed to analyze how oil and gas development will interfere with the originally stated purposes of the Refuge.

Spurning legal and procedural requirements

Since the passage of PL 115-97, USDI has ignored the legal requirement to first establish and evaluate an oil and gas program under NEPA review, before making plans for lease sales. It has instead rushed ahead with a plan and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that makes wholesale allowances for major oil and gas support infrastructure. This will be built outside of the 2,000 acre development footprint legally allowed under PL 115-97, Section 20001 in order to fast-track lease sales as soon as possible.

These brazen actions resulted in limited public access and participation in the process while USDI continued to work behind the scenes during this winter’s government shutdown. USDI’s compressed EIS scoping, inadequate Draft EIS (DEIS), omission of science reviews, disregard of the 2,000 acre footprint limitation, disregard for indigenous Native knowledge, lack of thorough analysis, and short public comment period has created a development disaster waiting to happen. USDI has totally failed to meet its legal obligations for development in the Arctic Refuge and should not be allowed to proceed with it.

With development comes destruction

The relatively narrow coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge cannot be developed without destroying those ecological and wilderness values. The density and intensity of wildlife use there is too great and geographically concentrated to absorb any industrial development. The vast network of seismic survey lines, hundreds of miles of permanent roads and pipelines, airstrips, and associated infrastructure that would be brought by development would be like a coarsely woven giant fish-net thrown across the coastal plain ensnaring wildlife and displacing it from its historic migrations and natural patterns of use.

One has to look no further than west to Prudhoe Bay to see what the result would be—a densely developed industrial zone visible from space. Climate change is already taking its toll there, with rising temperatures, melting permafrost, collapsing oil wells, and shorter frozen ground seasons for mechanized over-tundra access.

Another world is possible

By contrast, a national investment in an energy policy that emphasizes Conservation, Alternatives, Renewables and Efficiencies to reduce our dependence on oil would be environmentally, economically, and nationally more secure. It would eliminate the need to sacrifice this and other ecological treasures for whatever oil may or may not be there. Call it the C.A.R.E. energy policy. We cannot survive if we continue to pursue energy policies that would have us burn all of earth’s hydrocarbons. In the face of rapidly increasing impacts of climate change can we afford not to make that investment in a C.A.R.E energy policy?

Monumental injustice added to injury

The human rights of indigenous Native Athabaskan Gwich’in Indians living in villages south and east of the Brooks Range in Alaska and Canada would be compromised. Their reliance on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for their cultural and traditional subsistence way of life would be destroyed by oil and gas development on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain. That would be an environmental racial injustice of monumental proportions.

As a non-Native, I cannot speak for the Gwich’in, but from thirty years of visiting their villages and working with them I can make value-based observations about their needs and human rights. They are indigenous Natives who were here first and have a legal right to exist and prosper in their cultural and traditional way of life as they have for millennia. An examination of the purposes of ANILCA and the Arctic Refuge and the history of Native law shows that Congress has guaranteed those rights.

Is nothing sacred?

Any claims that have been made by proponents of oil and gas development that the Gwich’in must adapt in the face of our perceived need for oil are condescending and unfounded. To the Gwich’in, the Arctic Refuge coastal plain is “the sacred place where life begins.” Must we destroy them and their culture that others might have the last drop of oil? No. Morally, that cannot be justified. We are the ones who must adapt.

Oil and gas development cannot take place on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain without contravening the legal purposes of the Arctic Refuge, established by Congress under ANILCA. It cannot be undertaken there without destroying the wildlife and wilderness values protected in law, causing irreparable harm to the subsistence communities that rely on those values. No amount of analysis can honestly escape the devastating realities of what that development would do to the internationally significant wildlife values and subsistence communities that rely on that extraordinary wilderness. Whatever oil and gas may or may not be there, we should leave it there.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain is wild and free, let it be.

Allen Smith has 45 years of professional Alaska wilderness conservation experience through leadership roles at The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, US Department of Justice and Sierra Club.  He and Carol, his wife, live in Olympia.

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