Trump administration plans to open the 1.56-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to leasing for oil and gas exploration are being challenged in federal court by Indigenous people to whom ANWR is sacred land and allied environmental entities.
Two lawsuits filed on Monday, Aug. 25 in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, contend that the Trump administration’s push to explore for oil and gas threatens critical habitat for birds, caribou, marine mammals and other species, and the way of life of the Gwich’in Nation, whose people have lived in the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada for thousands of years.
The lawsuits filed by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of the Gwich’in and environmental entities and by Earthjustice on behalf of four other environmental groups both seek to stop the Interior Department from leasing lands within ANWR for exploration.
Alaska’s congressional delegation, as well as Gov. Mike Dunleavy, meanwhile applauded the decision.
“Through this program, we will build on our already-strong record of an increasingly minimal footprint for responsible resource development,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, praised the decision “for responsible development of ANWR.”
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, called it a great day not only for Alaska, “but for American energy independence.”
Dunleavy cited the decision as a historic day. He thanked the Trump administration for opening up ANWR for the lease sale.
“It will create jobs, it will create opportunity and it will create wealth and security for our country,” he said in a video recording, adding that “we watch out for the environment better than any place on the face of the Earth.”
The Gwich’in Steering Committee and more than a dozen environmental entities who signed onto the lawsuits disagreed.
The federal Bureau of Land Management’s decision “to violate lands sacred to my people and essential to the health of the Porcupine caribou herd is an attack on our rights, our culture and our way of life,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which was formed in 1988 in response to proposals to begin drilling in the coastal plain of ANWR.
To the Gwich’in, the coastal plain, calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, is recognized as the sacred place where life begins.
“We have lived and thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years,” Demientieff said. “We have listened and learned from our elders, and we know we must stand united to protect future generations, and that means going to court to protect the caribou herd and sacred lands.”
To the Gwich’in the coastal plain is their store, their source of continuing sustenance.
“Our way of life is not for sale,” Demientieff said. “We only want to continue our way of life. We are not asking for anything. We choose to live off the land. It is a harder life. It is more work, but it is the way we choose to live. We are not poor people. We are rich in our culture. We are rich in our way of life. We will not allow you to come in and destroy this beautiful, pristine place.”
Gwich’in elders recognized over three decades ago that oil development in the caribou calving grounds would threaten the very heart of their culture. That prompted chiefs from all Gwich’in villages in Canada and Alaska to gather in Arctic Village and resolve to speak as one voice against oil and gas development in the birthing and nursing grounds of the Porcupine herd.
The BLM’s Record of Decision released on Aug. 17 would allow leasing of the entire coastal plain. Trustees’ lawsuit charges that the BLM is violating the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The Trump administration has 60 days to respond to the lawsuits.
In addition to the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the Trustees lawsuit represents Alaska Wilderness League, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society-Yukon Chapter, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment America, Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and Wilderness Watch.
Dr. David Raskin, president of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, called the federal plans for oil and gas exploration “an outrageous assault” on incomparable wildlife and habitat, the traditional lifestyle and culture of the Gwich’in Nation.
“This misguided effort to line the pockets of the oil industry for political gain will be defeated by the legitimate stakeholders, just as it has been many times since the Refuge was established by ANILCA in 1980,” Raskin said. “We will not allow the rights of the public to be trampled by this flawed process that flies in the face of the many laws and regulations that are designed to enhance and preserve our national heritage.”
The Earthjustice lawsuit represents the National Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Stand.Earth.
“This is one of the most remarkable places on the planet and it’s unconscionable that the Trump administration is trying to turn it into an industrial zone,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Caribou, polar bears and other Arctic wildlife will face noise pollution, oil spills and even more climate chaos. We can’t let that happen.”
“At a time when the world is grappling with a grave climate crisis, we cannot allow the oil industry to continue to expand its grip on America’s Arctic, where it will drill and destroy one of our most extraordinary, yet fragile, natural treasures,” said Rebecca Noblin, an attorney with Earthjustice.