What happens in the Arctic doesn’t just stay up north. It affects the world, as that region is the integrator of our planet’s climate systems, atmospheric and oceanic. At the moment, the northernmost places on Earth are warming at more than twice the global average, a phenomenon whose impact is already being felt planetwide. Welcome to the world of climate breakdown — and to the world of Donald Trump.
The set of climate feedbacks contributing to further warming in the Arctic are about to be aided and abetted by President Trump, his Interior Department, and a Republican–controlled Congress. The impact of their decisions will be experienced around the world. While the United States is still recovering from the deaths, suffering, and devastation caused by extreme hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as historically deadly wildfires across the West, Trump’s Department of the Interior is preparing a five-year strategic plan that never once mentions climate change or climate science. It does, however, plan to open previously protected public lands of all sorts to the increased exploitation of fossil fuels — and Arctic Alaska is anything but exempt.
“Alaska [is] open for business,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a cheering crowd at an Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference in Anchorage earlier this year. The secretary was visiting as part of a presidential mandate to “prepare our country to be energy dominant” — even though the U.S. has been the largest global producer of oil and gas since 2012 and, in this era, has often been referred to as “Saudi America.” What that energy-dominance slogan signals is nothing short of the beginning of a war against environmental conservation, justice, and the planet as a welcoming habitat for all life.
“The only path for energy dominance is a path through the great state of Alaska,” Zinke assured the Anchorage audience. What he evidently wants to do is sell off the most ecologically and culturally significant places in the state to Big Oil. On the sacrifice block is a long endangered stretch of public land, Area 1002, or the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a biological nursery of global significance and a place sacred to the indigenous Gwich’in Nation. Like her father, also a Republican senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski is championing the task of opening the refuge to drilling by abusing the filibuster-proof budget process rather than debating this controversial issue as stand-alone legislation in Congress.
I first visited the Arctic Refuge in March 2001, spending a never-to-be-forgotten 14 months there during which, among so many other remarkable sights, I watched a polar bear mother playing with her two cubs outside their den in the Canning River Delta. As sea ice in the region continues to rapidly disappear, thanks to accelerating global warming, and as species like the polar bear that once used that sea ice as a primary denning habitat struggle for survival, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge becomes increasingly significant as a land-denning habitat. And keep in mind that it’s a place that harbors the highest density of onshore polar bear dens in Alaska. Any seismic exploration and drilling activities in the refuge are expected to severely affect those bears. (Seismic exploration is the process by which subsurface deposits of fossil fuels and minerals are detected by using shock waves.)
On that first visit to the refuge, I witnessed caribou from the Porcupine River herd giving birth around our tent. Nearly 200,000 of them migrate more than 1,500 miles annually from their wintering habitats to the south to their calving grounds on the coastal plain and back again, the longest land migration of any mammal on Earth. In the summer months, I had difficulty sleeping because the sun quite literally never sets and birds sing around the clock. More than 90 species of them migrate from five continents and all 50 states to nest and rear their young on that coastal plain. No wonder the Gwich’in people call it “the sacred place where life begins.”
“Saddle up, it’s going to be a tough fight, but we come from survivors, we come from warriors,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee wrote in a Facebook post, as she faced the increasingly grim Trumpian future that seems to be in store for the preserve. To understand the situation she and her people find themselves in, join me on a brief journey into what might be called multispecies justice.
On December 6, 1960, after a decade-long campaign by conservationists George Collins, Lowell Sumner, and Olaus and Mardy Murie, among others, Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton signed Public Land Order 2214 setting aside 8.9 million acres in northeast Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Its purpose: “preserving unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” Twenty years later, the “range” was renamed a “refuge” and more than doubled in size as part of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, or ANILCA, signed into law on December 2, 1980, by President Jimmy Carter. Protecting the habitat of the Porcupine River caribou herd was a crucial focus of the conservationists who helped create the refuge.
Just as the original refuge was being established, the Gwich’in were beginning their own advocacy for the protection of the caribou. “Our people have been raising concerns about the impact of development on the caribou since the sixties,” Gwich’in elder and activist Sarah James of Arctic Village told me during my visit to Alaska last month.
Jonathon Solomon from Fort Yukon, who would later become one of the most influential indigenous activists in Alaska, founded Gwichyaa Gwich’in Ginkhe (“people of the flat speak”) to fight a proposed dam on the Yukon River, which would have flooded 10 indigenous villages on the Yukon Flats. He also advocated for the animals whose habitats the dam might damage or destroy, including caribou, salmon, and waterfowl. In 1967, the project was shelved and in 1980, as part of ANILCA, the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge was established adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. This represented a major victory for the indigenous people and the conservationists who had united in defense of environmental justice. Without them, there would have been a mud-banked reservoir the size of Lake Erie and 10 indigenous villages under hundreds of feet of water, with salmon migrations blocked, and the loss of one of North America’s most productive waterfowl nesting areas.
In the early 1970s, a major Arctic pipeline project was proposed to carry natural gas from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields across the Arctic coastal plain to the Mackenzie River Delta, and from there south to Alberta, Canada. “Our people were very concerned about the potential impact on the caribou as the pipeline would traverse their birthing grounds in the Arctic Refuge and in Canada,” Sarah James told me. Jonathon Solomon helped organize opposition in the villages of the region. In his 1977 report, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland, the influential Canadian jurist Thomas Berger recommended that “no pipeline be built and no energy corridor be established across the Northern Yukon.”
Berger further advocated for the establishment of a national park in the region, one in which the “native people must continue to have the right to hunt, fish, and trap.” His proposal prevailed. The pipeline was never built and, in 1984, in line with the land claims of the Inuvialuit people, a Northern Yukon National Park was established adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. In 1992, it was renamed Ivvavik National Park.
In the Inuvialuktun language, Ivvavik means “nursery” or “birthplace.” Fran Mauer, a retired wildlife biologist who has studied the caribou and worked for 21 years in the Arctic Refuge, explained to me that the Porcupine River herd uses the coastal plain that stretches across Alaska and the northern Yukon as one large birthplace and nursery. Any oil and gas development in that protected plain on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, however, would endanger the herd’s survival and so the way of life of the Gwich’in, who have always called themselves “the caribou people.” As a map prepared by the Gwich’in Steering Committee indicates, the habitat of the caribou overlaps their own traditional homeland of 15 villages spread across Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest territories. They depend on that vast herd for nutritional, cultural, and spiritual sustenance. Their map is an exemplary depiction of multispecies justice in which the border between the two countries is no more than a dotted line.
In 1995, based on Gwich’in land claims in Yukon, Canada, one more refuge, Vuntut National Park, was established adjacent to both Ivvavik National Park and the Arctic Refuge. Following a recent Senate vote that could portend the future opening of the refuge to Big Oil, Chief Bruce Charlie of the Vuntut Gwitchin (People of the Lakes) First Nation said, “Our mandate from our elders is to permanently protect the sacred calving grounds on the coastal plain of the refuge, and we will not stop our fight until that is achieved and our human rights are respected.” In this spirit, he and his compatriots urge us to set aside national territorial claims in favor of multispecies justice.
The four contiguous protected areas — the Arctic Refuge, the Yukon Flats Refuge, Ivvavik National Park, and the Vuntut National Park — should be thought of as a vast transnational nursery for innumerable species and a living testament to seven decades of hard work by conservationists and indigenous peoples from two countries. To destroy this interconnected, interdependent web of life by turning the “sacred place where life begins” into a vast oil field and so fossil-fuelize Donald Trump’s dreams of 1950s-style American glory, would be little short of a crime against both nature and humanity. In the wake of any such development, there will, of course, be the inevitable oil spills, toxic residues, and other environmental crises as ever more oil and natural gas are extracted from a planet that can ill afford to see them burned.
In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan appointed James Watt as his secretary of interior and Anne Burford as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, conservationists became alarmed about the large-scale sale of public lands and waters to the extractive industries. In fact, the opening up of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain to oil and gas development would soon become a priority for the Reagan administration.
In 1984, seismic exploration was conducted on the coastal plain. At that time, federal scientists working at the Arctic Refuge’s office in Fairbanks, Alaska, were put under a gag order by the Department of the Interior and forbidden to discuss the value of the Refuge’s wildlife or wilderness with the media or the public, as biologist Pamela Miller who resigned in protest, becoming a conservationist and defender of the refuge, told me. In 1988, alarmed by developments in Washington and Alaska, all 15 Gwich’in villages called an emergency gathering and passed a resolution, Gwich’in Niintsyaa, which demanded 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.” They further requested that “the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be made Wilderness to achieve this end.”
Given the groundwork put in place by the Reagan administration and the Alaska congressional delegation, a bill to open up the refuge to drilling was nonetheless sailing through the Senate in 1989. In March of that year, however, an ironic twist of fate occurred. The Exxon Valdez, a giant oil tanker made national headlines by running aground on a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling almost 11 million gallons of crude oil into its waters and polluting the region. In response to an environmental disaster on such a scale, congressional lawmakers pulled the plug on oil exploration and drilling at the refuge.
But that didn’t end matters. The Alaska congressional delegation renewed the push to open up the refuge as soon as George H.W. Bush took office. Ever since then, advocates of drilling have continued to peddle a laughable myth: that oil development would actually be good for the region’s caribou because, as George W. Bush would claim at a rally in the 2000 election campaign, those caribou “will come up against the pipe, nice warm pipe, they’ll make love, and you’ll have more caribou.”
Soon after moving into the White House, Bush once again made opening the refuge to drilling a priority for a Republican administration. In 2001, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources asked Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, who had infamously described the Arctic Refuge coastal plain as a “flat white nothingness,” for information on caribou calving and oil drilling there and she, in turn, queried the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on the subject.
In a May 24, 2001, memorandum, the refuge manager wrote to his supervisor at the FWS: “During the period for which there are adequate records, Porcupine herd calving concentrations have occurred within the 1002 [coastal plain] area 27 out of 30 years.” That July, however, in a letter responding to questions about the dangers of opening the Arctic Refuge from Senator Frank Murkowski, Norton responded, “Concentrated calving occurred primarily outside of the 1002 Area in 11 of the last 18 years.” When questioned about this, her spokesperson insisted that the problem had been a typographic error, not an urge to mislead Congress. And so it’s gone ever since.
Recently, during a Senate hearing on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge, biologist and former research professor at the University of Alaska Matthew Cronin testified that caribou had not been “significantly impacted” by the oil fields in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay area. When Senator Al Franken asked if he received funding from the oil companies — ExxonMobil and BP Exploration — for his research, Cronin responded with a “yes.” Lois Epstein, Arctic Program Director of the Wilderness Society, who also testified, promised that she will submit a report challenging Cronin’s research, so that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee can make a “responsible decision” on the refuge.
At that hearing, the boosters of drilling also touted two other false claims made regularly during the Bush years:
* that drilling in the refuge will involve only a very small “footprint,” just 2,000 acres, even though the entire 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain would, in fact, be opened to oil and gas leasing, as well as a sprawling network of pipelines, roads, and year-round production infrastructure;
* that advances in technology make “modern” Arctic drilling environmentally safe, even though there have been “450 spills each year during 1996-2008” and “nearly one spill per day” between October 2012 and October 2017 in the existing Prudhoe Bay oil fields, as Epstein pointed out in her written testimony to that Senate committee. She also wrote that earlier this year, BP suffered a “production well blowout due to thawing permafrost,” thanks to rapid Arctic warming.
Already, the opening of the refuge is deeply enmeshed in the congressional tax “reform” process, as Senate Republicans are hoping to raise $1 billion over the next decade from the anticipated oil lease sales in the refuge to help defray their $2 trillion tax reform “giveaway” to the rich.
Last month, during my visit to Alaska — a significant part of the state’s budget comes from oil revenues — I witnessed much euphoria about protected public lands finally being “opened for business.” There’s nothing new about this. There was a similar euphoria over the Rampart Dam and Arctic Gas Pipeline, mega-projects that were, in the end, defeated by conservationists and indigenous activists. The world is better off today because of their foresight and hard work, and the planet richer in the diversity of life thanks to it.
I also witnessed voices of resistance getting louder as conservationists and indigenous activists girded themselves for what will be the battle of a lifetime. “Congress must take drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off the table,” Bernadette Demientieff wrote. “It’s up to all of us to protect this sacred place for generations to come.”
Opening up the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the crown jewel of that vast transnational nursery, to a world of harm at a time when the “sixth mass extinction” in our planet’s history is already underway could prove to be one of the crimes of the century — of any century, in fact.
TomDispatch regular Subhankar Banerjee is the author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land and editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. He is Lannan chair and professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. An exhibition of his Arctic work, “Long Environmentalism in the Near North: Activism, Photographs, Writing,” is on display at the University of New Mexico Art Museum through March 3, 2018.
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