FORT YUKON, Alaska - The Bush administration's agenda for relieving high
oil prices lies beneath the permafrost at the Arctic National Wildlife
Reserve; and opposition to the drilling, based on environmental and
cultural reasons, are strong.
If the Gwich'in have their say, no drilling will take place and the entire
region will become a wildlife preserve, forever halting any debate over oil
The search for oil has reached a fever pitch in Congress, the Department of
Interior and the Bush administration. Interior Secretary Gale Norton has
made numerous trips to ANWR to inspect the area that would be opened. The
1.5 million acres that is not designated wilderness could be opened for
The remainder of the 19-million-acre reserve is untouchable: and that's
what the Gwich'in steering committee wants for the entire area.
ANWR drilling was not included in the energy bill approved by the Senate,
but the House included the opening of ANWR in its version, which includes
possible revenue to be gained from the sale of oil. No action is expected
before a budget is considered, which would not occur until September.
Alaska's junior senator, Lisa Murkowski, expressed optimism that the bill
will pass this time around. The drilling, according to Murkowski, will
generate revenue for the federal government; and even though there is still
a political battle ahead for any budget bill, she is confident ANWR will
see drilling rigs soon.
The Gwich'in have successfully convinced Congress to not drill in ANWR
eight times. The Gwich'in steering committee is confident, albeit guarded,
that it can again be successful.
"Why bother to go into a place we call 'where life began'?" asked Sarah
James, Gwich'in elder.
There is support and opposition among Alaska Native communities, but James
said more traditionalists are coming over to the side of the Gwich'in. The
community most closely aligned with any drilling will be Kaktovic, located
in ANWR. The economic impact from oil drilling that now takes place in
Prudhoe Bay has helped that and other communities.
One concern is the possibility that if ANWR was opened to oil drilling, the
next step would be for off-shore drilling. The opposition to off-shore
drilling runs at about 100 percent throughout the area, according to many
The Kaktovic Inupiat Corp. favors the drilling for its potential economic
impact; still, offshore drilling is not acceptable to the corporation. What
is feared with drilling - offshore or onshore - is the impact it will have
on wildlife, a major source of food and revenue for the Alaska Native
Many people still hunt whale for subsistence, and they fear the animal's
migratory habits will be impacted by offshore drilling.
Caribou are the main source of food and other goods for the Inupiat and
other people. The steering committee, whose members mostly live hundreds of
miles away from the proposed drill site, still hunt caribou and expect the
birthing regions to be adversely affected by the drilling.
Proponents of the drilling - Gov. Frank Murkowski, for one - said that
since Prudhoe Bay Field was opened the numbers of caribou have increased -
not declined, as environmentalists had predicted.
To help convince Congress to vote against funding any drilling, the
Gwich'in are planning a march on Washington, D.C. in August, complete with
ceremonies, singing, drumming and dancing, James said.
"This is a hard battle; we will celebrate human rights," she said. "We are
calling on all nations, all Native American people to be united."
James reminded all American Indians that proposed provisions in the energy
bill threaten tribal sovereignty.
Many Inupiat residents who live near the existing oil drilling region claim
that air pollution has caused an increase in instances of asthma.
Many elders also claim that herds of caribou do not travel through the same
areas as before and that many are showing signs of illness. Helicopters and
seismic sensors that search for oil reserves are also disruptive to the
caribou migration patterns.
The Porcupine Caribou in particular do not venture near the existing oil
field, but the Gwich'in are concerned that their numbers have been reduced
because of an increase in other herds and a reduction in habitat.
Proponents of drilling claim that new technologies will solve any pollution
problems and that with the new technology, only a small area will be used
for equipment and storage.
The Gwich'in steering committee recently resurrected an old resolution, one
that was used eight times before to oppose any funding measure that would
allow for drilling.
"That the United States Congress and President recognize the rights of our
Gwich'in people to continue to live our way of life by prohibiting
development in the calving and post-calving grounds of the Porcupine
Caribou herd," the resolution stated.
It continued: "That the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be
made Wilderness to achieve this end."
The Gwich'in are caribou people, and the birthplace of the Porcupine River
caribou is considered the sacred place where life begins.
In order to convince Congress, James said there will be some runs, some
sacred fasting and a gathering of as many American Indian religious leaders
as possible in the nation's capital. She said the gathering would take
place in mid-August.
The Gwich'in steering committee works closely with environmental
organizations. The Gwich'in cannot lobby, but the environmental
organizations can, James said.