Energy & Environment

Secretary Zinke: Listen to native tribes, not corporations

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When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was in Alaska recently, he met with Alaska Native corporations arguing over profits from any future drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Zinke and the Trump administration have made it clear that opening the Arctic refuge to drilling is a priority. But what Zinke wasn’t told in these meetings was that corporations don’t speak for all Alaska Natives.

Instead of looking at the short-term financial advantages, tribes from across Alaska stand against any destruction to our homelands. Some places are too special, too sacred to drill. As Americans and as Alaskans, we need to understand that the Arctic refuge is about much more than putting dollars in corporate pockets.

The Gwich’in people have relied on the lands of the refuge for thousands of years. These lands provide everything we need to live and thrive —through subsistence hunting and gathering, clothing and more.

As we often say, “Where the caribou go, so do the Gwich’in.”

{mosads}Each year, the 197,000-strong Porcupine Caribou Herd engages in one of the longest land migrations on Earth. Beginning in April, they head north, walking 400 miles to the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge. Right now, as the summer solstice approaches, they are arriving to give birth to their calves.


Life, for us and for the caribou we depend on, begins anew. This is why we call the coastal plain “the sacred place where life begins.”

For the Gwich’in people, protecting the coastal plain is about upholding our rights to continue our native ways of life. “In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence,” states the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Alaska’s caribou herd populations are diminishing. Better adapted to cold temperatures than the warmer, damper weather we are starting to see in the Arctic, the caribou herds are in decline — the Associated Press reported a steep decline in population for the Central Arctic Herd, which has dropped about 50 percent over the last three years.

The Arctic is ground zero for climate change; temperatures are rising here at twice the rate of the rest of the country. With rising temperatures come rising lakes and rivers across the coastal plain. Caribou have been known to starve because they cannot cross the river and lakes to get to food.

My people are alarmed. We see the changes in our climate, our land, our animals and our way of life. Villages are falling into the sea, permafrost melt is making infrastructure insecure and food sources are disappearing. 

We know that oil drilling in the Arctic refuge would only serve to compound the devastating impacts we are already seeing from climate change throughout the Arctic. The last thing that we need is more drilling. 

In addition to the Alaska Native corporations, Alaska’s congressional delegation, state-elected officials and many Alaska residents say that we need the oil. A decade ago they told us that Arctic drilling was necessary was to avoid skyrocketing gas prices, yet today’s gas prices are low.

It is a shame that when these public servants look at Alaska, they see dollars instead of the beauty and bounty of our unspoiled lands. 

The Arctic refuge stands as a symbol of our nation’s strong natural legacy. We have a moral responsibility to protect this land for our children and grandchildren.

The Trump administration must not be allowed to open the refuge to drilling. It is up to all of us to protect this sacred place for generations to come.

Bernadette Demientieff is a Gwich’in from Fort Yukon, Alaska, and the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

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Tags Arctic refuge Drilling Environment oil
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