Refuge drilling opponents prepare for next phase of struggle

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)

Now that Congress has OK’d oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain, opponents are preparing for the next phase in their decades-long struggle to protect the environmentally sensitive area.

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“This fight is not over. For the Gwich’in, it has just begun, on a whole new level,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich-in Steering Committee, said.

Demientieff says members of the Fairbanks-based organization are taking a few days off before they resume their efforts to protect the coastal plain and its wildlife from oil-industry development.

“Right now, we just take the time to calm down, because there’s a lot of anger,” Demientieff said. “And we can’t act out in anger.”

The Gwich’in consider the lands that would be opened to oil and gas exploration as sacred. They also worry the industrial activity will harm the Porcupine caribou herd and other wildlife that’s essential to indigenous peoples’ subsistence.

“I would just say for every body just to enjoy their loved ones,” Demientieff said. “And in the new year, we will unite, get back on track, and work on ways that we are going to keep them out of the Arctic refuge.”

Local conservation groups also are preparing to launch campaigns to protect the coastal plain, in concert with their national counterparts and indigenous peoples organizations.

“You’ll see Northern Alaska Environmental Center and our partners here in Alaska continue to stand in solidarity with the Gwich’in nation,” Elizabeth Dabney, executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center said. “This is a huge blow to their way of life. And a lack of an acknowledgement of the time they spent in Washington, D.C., raising their voices.”

Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition spokeswoman Jessica Girard accuses Alaska’s congressional delegation of favoring industry over Alaskans who oppose opening the coastal plain to oil and gas development.

Girard said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski sold out by voting in favor of the federal tax-reform bill that contained provisions to open ANWR, despite another part of the bill that will cripple the Affordable Care Act – which the senator said she opposed earlier this year.

“I think we saw a spike in support for the refuge, specifically here in Alaska, when people began to realize that Murkowski did sell out her health-care vote simply to get her pet project, which is the Arctic refuge,” Girard said.

Murkowski has denied those accusations, saying the bill’s provision to repeal the universal mandate from the health care act, quote, “restores to people the freedom to choose” because it eliminates the requirement that all Americans be covered by health insurance.

Dabney said Murkowski’s role in including ANWR in the final budget bill casts doubt on her explanation.

“It was an underhanded way to get the coastal plain in there. And it was also pretty dangerous and totally disregarded the Gwich’in,” Dabney said.

Neither Dabney nor Girard would offer specifics on the new campaigns they say will be launched in the coming year to halt development of the Arctic Refuge.

Girard says conservation groups intend to take full advantage of the years-long federal process of identifying lands with oil and gas potential and then conducting lease sales, all of which must be done before drilling can begin.

“There’s many hurdles that are in the way of opening the refuge,” Girard said.

Throughout that time, Girard says opponents will be waging political fights in Congress, filing lawsuits and staging protests here in Alaska and nationwide.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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