President Trump’s assault on climate and public lands has been called a kind of administrative vandalism. Under his leadership, crucial environmental regulations have been rolled back, the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and millions of acres of public lands have been opened to the energy industry.
Included in the list of areas under threat is Bears Ears National Monument. In December 2017, Trump announced plans to shrink the monument by 85%. A year later, with the protections removed, the surrounding public lands were opened to resource extraction. While the decision is still being challenged in court, for now, it stands.
From June 19 to 27, I traveled to Arctic Village, a small native village in northeastern Alaska, to listen and learn from the Gwich’in people in the fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Like Bears Ears, the refuge lost crucial protections at the start of the Trump administration when the refuge coastal plain, the last 5% of Alaska’s coastline protected from resource extraction, was opened to the energy industry. The move marks the first time a national wildlife refuge in the U.S. has been opened and re-designated for oil development, setting a dangerous precedent.
The Gwich’in, the First Peoples of the area who rely on the land for culture and for subsistence, depend on the Coastal Plain for their chief source of food: the porcupine caribou. The herd, which makes up 80% of Gwich’in food supply, migrates between Canada and Alaska south of the Brooks Range to birth their calves in The Refuge Coastal Plain. This is the longest land migration route of any land mammal on earth. If the administration moves forward to develop the coastal plain for oil the Gwich’in will lose their main source of food.
Developing the coastal plain for oil will also increase climate change. While it’s estimated that the oil reserves would only last six months, based on the current rate at which oil is being used, the climate impacts would be devastating. Research showed that if all the oil is extracted and burned it would add equivalent climate emissions to our atmosphere as emissions from 898 coal plants operating for a year, or adding 776 million passenger vehicles to the road.
When I flew into Fairbanks on June 19, record-high temperatures sent wildfires across the state. About a quarter-million acres were burned and nearly 120 fires were unconfined. After arriving in Fairbanks I flew to Arctic Village with a group of educators, journalists and other activists. While the smoke from the wildfires had not yet reached the refuge, looking out through the haze there was a sense that the landscape is changing. The hot, dry climate sweeping fires across the west is causing Arctic permafrost to melt, and is drying up lakes and rivers that the Gwich’in rely on for subsistence. Impacts of a region that is warming three times as fast as the global average.
Luckily, under the leadership of Sarah James, a Gwich’in leader and lifelong advocate for the refuge, and members from the Gwich’in Steering Committee, efforts to protect the refuge are increasing across the country.
Since the environmental review process began, the Bureau of Land Management has received over 700,000 public comments in opposition of the development. And as more people become aware of the issue, this number increases.
“I think it's important that our supporters are part of our message and understand us because we have to live in this world together,” said James.
For James, keeping the energy industry out of the refuge is about protecting her people, the caribou and the global communities who are being impacted by climate change.
“The more we work together, we’ll have a better place to live in this world,” she said.
In the coming weeks, the House should vote on HR 1146, the “Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act” which would stop the administration’s push to lease The Refuge to oil and gas companies. Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, has been a champion of the effort to protect the Arctic Refuge, and co-sponsored this bill to defend this special place from the fossil fuel industry. I urge the rest of our congressional delegation to do the same.
Rebekah Ashley, Salt Lake City, has been advocating for the protection of The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge since 2016 as an activist and as a journalist.