As spiritual leaders — from the Baptist, Presbyterian and Disciples of Christ faith traditions — we are called to be responsible stewards of God’s creation. For the three of us, it is easy to see the magnificence of God’s creative handiwork close to home in the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon in Arizona, the natural beauty and incredible wildlife of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia and Florida, or the high desert landscapes and cultural treasures of Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. There is a reason that these spectacular public lands are protected to ensure that they thrive and endure for future generations of Americans to enjoy.
Unfortunately, there is an equally stunning landscape that currently doesn’t have those kinds of protections. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a breathtaking part of God’s sacred creation, one of the last truly wild places on earth, and home to iconic wildlife.
The Gwich’in call this special region “the sacred place where life begins” and indeed, in the spring and summer months — when 200 species of migratory birds flock to the region and when wooly caterpillars emerge from their frozen cocoons and transform into a butterfly — it is truly a wildlife paradise.
Every winter, polar bears give birth to their young in dens they have built on the coastal plain. Every spring, pregnant porcupine caribou travel some 400 miles to give birth and raise their young in that same area. For thousands of years, the Gwich’in people have followed this migration route, hunting caribou for food and clothing and incorporating the caribou into their culture and rituals.
But this Arctic Eden is now under attack. A provision in a 2017 tax bill opened up this diverse ecosystem to oil and gas development, despite opposition from the Gwich’in people and despite scientific evidence that oil development would disrupt migration patterns, crush polar bear dens, exacerbate climate change and threaten all life that depends on the pristine wildlife habitat provided in the refuge.
The American people overwhelmingly oppose drilling in the Arctic — as do all major banking institutions and many large corporations. It’s one reason that the first lease sale in January was a financial disaster. No major oil companies participated, only half of the parcels received bids, and despite projections that the lease sale would raise $1.8 billion, a mere $14 million was collected. Quite apart from the moral, ecological and cultural reasons not to drill in the wildlife refuge, it also makes zero financial sense.
It’s time for Congress to correct the grievous mistake it made when it opened up the refuge to oil and gas development. It’s time to permanently protect these sacred lands so that polar bears, caribou, musk oxen and the other iconic wildlife that depend on the coastal plain for survival are no longer threatened by energy development that exacerbates climate change. It’s time to stop violating the human rights of the Gwich’in people by ignoring their pleas to protect their way of life.
Many diverse faith communities across the nation have shown a long commitment to protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and fighting policies that accelerate climate change. Now is the time for all people of faith to speak up and demonstrate a firm commitment to protecting all of God’s creation by calling for a halt to any plans for oil and gas exploration or development in the coastal plain. We must be responsible stewards and caretakers of planet Earth so that our lands, waters, and wildlife will survive for future generations.
Congress must permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and be responsible stewards and caretakers of one of God’s most spectacular creations.
Codi Norred is the executive director of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light.
Rev. Andrew Black is field director for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation.
Rev. Doug Bland is the executive director of Arizona Interfaith Power and Light.