For the Gwich’in on both sides of the Canada-US border, this is a great victory, even if it is not written in stone.
The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will cancel seven oil exploration leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area that includes the breeding grounds of the porcupine caribou herd.
The Gwich’in people consider the area “the sacred place where life begins.”
“It’s a step in the right direction for this administration to take,” said Bernadette Dementieff, executive director of the Alaska Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We still have a lot of work to do to permanently protect [the refuge]but I’m really enjoying the news.”
Pauline Frost, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, said the decision allows Gwich’in “a breather” to organize additional efforts to put the refuge forever out of the reach of oil and gas development, something that would require an act of Congress.
“The entire nation really needs to start partnering with our allies and friends and … stick together and start using this as an opportunity to send some clear messages to the Biden administration, actually to the world, that drilling in the coastal can’t proceed,” Frost said. “He just can’t.”
Porcupine caribou numbers are high: a recent study estimates a population of around 218,000, which would make the porcupine one of the largest caribou herds in the world. But Gwich’in and his environmental allies worry that would change if industrial development were allowed in the birth zones.
The seven leases cover an area of almost 150,000 hectares. They were issued by the US Bureau of Land Management during the waning days of the Trump administration. The state-run Alaska Export and Industrial Development Authority (AIDEA) bought the leases after major oil players passed on.
“What we’ve seen is there’s not a huge desire to drill in the Arctic Refuge” from the major oil companies, said Chris Rider, national director of conservation for the Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society and a former Yukoner.
“And I think that’s because people know this is a very important area and they know the impacts it would have. They also know it’s not a popular decision.”
The tenant criticizes the decision
In a press release, AIDEA promised to take the Biden administration’s decision to court. “This latest action by the Department of the Interior shows an arbitrary disregard for federal law, based on campaign rhetoric. Campaign promises are not enough to justify action by this agency.”
The organization that represents the Iñupiat of Alaska also criticized the decision. Iñupiat leaders have long supported opening the Arctic Refuge to drilling, as well as the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, which lies west of the refuge.
“[Wednesday’s] The Biden administration’s announcement to terminate leases in the ANWR and further ‘protect’ 13 million acres of our ancestral lands goes against the wishes and self-determination of our region,” said Nagruk Harcharek, Chairman of Voice of Arctic. Iñupiat, in a statement.
And the Alaska congressional delegation (both Democrats and Republicans) said they were disappointed by the decision. Political leaders in Alaska have long pushed for oil and gas drilling to be allowed on the refuge, in part because of its economic impact on indigenous communities in an area with few jobs.
Republican US Senator for Alaska, Dan Sullivan, denounced Biden’s actions as the latest broadside in what he called a “war on Alaska.”
“I am deeply frustrated by the revocation of these leases at ANWR,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, using a common abbreviation for the shelter.
Dementieff, chair of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said she is aware that a future administration could reverse this week’s decision.
“We just keep going out and educating,” he said. “There are many new members of Congress who have commented that we need to keep talking and getting their support, including our own congressional leadership in Alaska.”
“It is an uphill battle, but it is the battle we are willing to face.”