It takes Lorraine Netro, a Gwich’in leader from the community of Old Crow in the northern Yukon, three straight days to travel to Washington, D.C. It’s a journey she has been making for the past 15 years to share her story with members of Congress in the hope of gaining support for an issue that’s of crucial importance to Netro, her community of 300 residents, and many indigenous people of the Arctic: earning permanent protection for the Coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“When I get here, I’m really happy and honored that people would make time to listen to us, and to listen to our story and why it’s so important,” Netro told ThinkProgress. “We have had a roller coaster of a ride with the Arctic National Wildlife issue. And yet, our elders when they ask us to do this work, they ask us to do it in a good way, to be respectful, and to always be hopeful.”
As Congress returned from its August recess, Netro again made the long journey to Washington, along with three other indigenous leaders. The leaders, all women, had a singular mission — to ask representatives to support H.R. 239, a bill currently before the House that would designate the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness.
Even in a place known for rugged wilderness, the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska is a unique place. Home to over 200 species of migratory birds, it’s also the last onshore area where polar bears den. Each summer, more than 40,000 Porcupine caribou calves are born and nurse on the Coastal Plain, before beginning their migration hundreds of miles south. The area brims with so much life that the Gwich’in people, an indigenous group that has lived on the land stretching from northeastern Alaska into the Canadian Yukon for thousands of years, call the Coastal Plain “Iizhik Gwat’san Gwandaii Goodlit” — The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.
But beyond a diverse ecosystem and crucial habitat, the Coastal Plain is home to another precious resource: vast reserves of oil, potentially as much as 16 billion recoverable barrels. Developers have been eyeing those reserves for decades, even as environmentalists and local tribes have worked for the area’s ultimate preservation.
In April, President Obama dealt a blow to developers and politicians hoping to mine the Coastal Plain’s vast resources of oil by formally recommending that the area be set aside as wilderness — a designation that would keep the area indefinitely free from industrial development.
Only Congress has the power to designate an area as wilderness, the highest level of protection that government can bestow upon a region. And Congress has been notoriously hesitant to act on issues of wilderness designation, with more than 30 proposals currently languishing before lawmakers. Even the Coastal Plain itself is no stranger to attempted Congressional protection — since 1986, Congress has seen a bill intended to protect the area introduced every session.
But as Congress stalls on protecting the Coastal Plain, the Gwich’in and Inupiaq that live and depend on the resources of the Coastal Plain continue to serve dual roles as both activists and educators.
“I really was born into this issue of my community having to educate the world as to the fact that we live off the land still,” Princess Daazhraii Johnson, whose family is from Arctic Village on the outer edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, told ThinkProgress. “We’re very blessed in the sense that we are not a displaced people, we still live off our ancestral lands. And the only way we’re able to do that is if we have food security.”
Opening up the Coastal Plain to drilling would threaten crucial breeding habitat the Porcupine caribou, which the Gwich’in depend on for food. Alaska Department of Fish and Game studies of Porcupine caribou populations following oil developments have found reduced calving numbers after development — around the Prudhoe Bay oilfield on Alaska’s North Slope, for instance, calving activity was rare throughout the 1980s even though it was recorded before the oil development. A USGS Alaska Science Center study into the potential impacts of oil development on the Porcupine caribou calves of the Coastal Plain found that development would most likely restrict the area available for calving, resulting in reduced survival rates of Porcupine caribou calves.
“All our people from within the Gwich’in nation rely on the Porcupine caribou for food,” Netro said. “It has sustained us over thousands and thousands of years. Our people and our relatives in Alaska, we’ve always relied on the Porcupine caribou for food and clothing and tools. It’s very, very important to us.”
Even without development of the Coastal Plain’s oil resources, the Gwich’in communities are already facing threats to food security, as climate change impacts the migration patterns of both the Porcupine caribou and abundance of salmon that once filled the communities streams. According to Netro, in the last decade, the southern migratory route of the Porcupine caribou — which used to lead herds very close to Old Crow — has shifted further eastward, forcing Gwich’in hunters to travel further in order to find food. Sometimes, Netro said, the caribou herds are so far away that the hunters are unable to supply the community with enough food for the winter — leading to extreme food insecurity for a remote community that has to have all outside food flown in. In those cases, Netro said, a liter of milk can cost as much as $15.
“Indigenous people are really at the forefront of climate change,” Johnson said. “It’s the indigenous and poor people of the world that bear the brunt of having to deal with food shortages due to climate change, soil erosion, lack of fresh water.”
Declaring the Coastal Plain a wilderness area won’t in and of itself stop climate change, but it will stop fossil fuel companies from accessing stores of oil that environmentalists and scientists argue need to stay in the ground if the world is to avoid more than 2°C of global warming.
H.R. 239, which would designate the Coastal Plain as wilderness, was introduced to the House on January 9, 2015, but has yet to receive a vote. There is currently no equivalent bill in the Senate, though there’s hope that a bill will be created this year. Any bill — in the House or Senate — is sure to face staunch opposition from Republicans, spearheaded by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chair of the Senate Energy Committee and one of the most vocal opponents to the idea of creating a permanent wildlife refuge along the Plain. Following the Obama administration’s April recommendation, Murkowski released a statement saying that “a congressional designation of the coastal plain as wilderness will not happen on [her] watch.”
Still, both Johnson and Netro remain hopeful that a wilderness designation for the Coastal Plain will happen, pointing to things like the Pope’s vocal climate activism, President Obama’s trip to the Arctic, and the upcoming U.N. climate talks in Paris as signs that the world is beginning to understand the dangers of climate change.
“In the future, when this place is protected — 20 years from now — my son, when he is 21, is going to go to this place someday. And he’s going to know that he came to D.C. as a baby, with his mom, and that he played a role in protecting this place,” Johnson said. “And I know for a fact that he is going to be so grateful.”