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Arctic leaders give opposing testimony on drilling

November 10th 3:40 pm | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

The question of whether or not to explore and develop the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) once again saw tribal leaders on opposite sides of the table, speaking to the different types of economies Alaskans hold dear.

The Arctic representatives present at the recent hearing before the U.S. Senate spoke in favor of opening the so-called "10-02" area of the refuge, while their neighbors to the south, the Gwich'in community, said they didn't want to see industry activity in the region.

"To be Gwich'in is to be connected to the land. To be Gwich'in is to believe the land and animals on it are owed our deepest respect. In that regard, it is our duty as Gwich'in to protect the land and animals," said Samuel Alexander, a member of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in tribal government. "We as Gwich'in see the desire to open up the refuge as an attack on us and as an attack on the Porcupine caribou herd on which we depend."

On the other end of the debate were Matthew Rexford, the tribal administrator of the Native Village of Kaktovik, and Richard Glenn, of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

The corporation manages land in the area and Kaktovik is the only village situated directly within the 10-02 area.

"We are an island in the middle of the largest wildlife refuge in America. Much of that land is also the ancestral home of the Inupiat. Our people are the indigenous inhabitants of the region and have used the resources it has blessed us with for more than 10,000 years," said Rexford. "While many refer to the controversial section of ANWR as a 10-02 area, this is the home of Qaaktugvigmiut, the people of Kaktovik."

Rexford said he was there to speak because often, when the refuge is discussed, the voice of the people who live there is absent.

"Since the mid-1980s, our people have fought unsuccessfully to open our homelands to responsible exploration and development. At the same time, Lower 48 lawmakers and special interest groups in the country have waged war on the idea, citing the disruption of wildlife and the pristine Arctic environment," Rexford said. "Qaaktugvigmiut and the Arctic Iñupiat will not become conservation refugees. We do not approve of efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park, which literally guarantees us a fate with no economy, no jobs, reduced subsistence, and no hope for the future of our people."

In many ways, his words echoed Alexander's, though it led them to speak at cross-purposes. Both talked at length about their connection to the land and the resources potentially affected by development on refuge lands.

While the Gwich'in do not live within ANWR, they live on lands bordering the refuge and rely on the caribou that use the area as their calving grounds.

"The opening the refuge to oil development and the subsequent decline of the Porcupine caribou herd will limit our access to traditional healthy food and push us from food security into the realm of food insecurity," said Alexander. "No amount of money can replicate our healthy traditional diet. No amount of money can replicate our ways. Tell me how replacing caribou with highly processed foods is going to be better for us. It will not. If we had to rely on our stores for food, we'd be looking at a steady diet of spam, macaroni and cheese, and other shelf-stable delicacies often at four or five times the price of what you find in the Lower 48."

Rexford noted the people of both Kaktovik and the rest of the North Slope likewise rely on the subsistence resources found on the refuge, but believe development can be done responsibly and carefully, so as not to affect the resources.

"My fellow Iñupiat and I firmly believe in a social license to operate and perhaps no other potential project in the history of America has called for such a blessing from local indigenous peoples more than this one. We Iñupiat have the benefit of decades of experience working with the oil and gas industry to implement stringent regulations to protect the lands through best management practices and the industry consistently has lived up to our standards. We know development in ANWR can be done safely because it is already being done safely all over the Arctic," said Rexford. "We think that now is the time to open ANWR."

ASRC's Glenn spoke during the second half of testimony and backed up Rexford's position.

"We think that the Alaska Native landowners Kaktovik and the folks from the Arctic Slope region cannot realize their right to economic self-determination if Congress fails to lift the prohibition on safe and responsible exploration and development of the coastal plain," Glenn said.

But there are different types of economies, Alexander noted, which touched, in some ways, on the root of the disagreement among the speakers.

"It's funny to me because I don't quite understand. We keep talking about economic development and I hear this a lot as an excuse to be going in and driving. What does that actually mean? I think that's not a recognition that the subsistence economy is a real thing," he said. "I find it hard to understand. Why would a Gwich'in person want to work a 40-hour week job making money so they could turn around and buy organic food. Why would that make sense to anybody?"

You can watch the full hearing online at


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