Supporters, opponents of ANWR leasing plan speak

Alaska’s congressional delegation is reaffirming its support for an oil and gas leasing program on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while Gwich’in Athabascans speak out against the plan, calling for protection of their sacred lands, caribou and human rights.

The state’s Republican delegation sent a letter on March 25 to Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash, saying they felt the final environmental impact statement “should maximize acreage available for leasing to fully comply with congressional intent and ensure the greatest possible return to the U.S. Treasury.”

They also urged the Interior Department “to prioritize subsistence access” for the residents of Kaktovik, whom the delegation identified as “the only inhabitants of the Coastal Plain.”

In Washington DC.

The delegation also said that the statutory authorization proiding for surface development of up to 2,000 federal acres “is meant as both a restriction to protect the environment and a guarantee that leases can be developed in a timely manner.”

Meanwhile in Washington D.C., the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources heard testimony from 11 people opposed to the leasing plan, including Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

“We call the Coastal Plain ‘Iizhik Gwats ‘an Gwandaii Goodlit’” – “the Sacred Place Where Life begins,” Demientieff told the subcommittee. “This name demonstrates the great significance of this area to the Gwich’in people. We are caribou people.

“The Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge is very important to the caribou,” Demientieff said. “Drilling there would cause lower birth rates and threaten migrations, risking everything we hold dear. Pregnant females come to the coastal Plain to give birth in May and early June.”

The Coastal Plain provides nutrition for the mothers recovering from birth and rich milk and nutrition for newborn calves, she said.

“The Coastal Plain is not just a piece of land with oil underneath. It is the heart of our people, our food, and our way of life,” she said.

Demientieff also told the committee that the congressional delegation has not listened to them, and that “the Native corporations do not speak for us. They are the ones who will benefit from development while the tribes live with the aftermath.” She urged the committee to pass the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act,” to protect the Gwich’in and their way of life.