Commentary: Take Arctic refuge off Trump’s chopping block

During the summer of 1990, while camping on the Okpilak River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I received a visit from former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. He had read my book, “Midnight Wilderness,” and wanted to meet me. They arrived in a helicopter with Secret Service agents who watched for bears. I took them fishing with my daughters and sister.

On that memorable trip, the Carters witnessed the migration of the Porcupine caribou herd on the coastal plain. Tens of thousands of caribou with month-old calves flooded the tundra before them. Astonished and deeply moved, President Carter understood why many had described this special birthplace as “America’s Serengeti.”

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“Oil development should never happen here,” he told me, as we talked about the abundance of life in the nation’s greatest wildlife refuge.

While Carter has been the only president to visit, others have shared his commitment to protecting this land. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower created the original 8.9 million-acre Arctic Range by executive order in December 1960, 60 years ago this month, to protect the area’s unique “wildlife, wilderness and recreational values.”

Donald Trump has been a different story. In a last-ditch effort to harm the refuge, the Trump administration has scheduled a Jan. 6 oil and gas lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Bureau of Land Management is trying to sell off tracts of the Arctic Refuge like a real-estate broker.

Ignoring climate change impacts, endangered species, the Gwich’in people and the views of the majority of Americans, Trump wants to put the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, the refuge’s most biologically productive area, on the chopping block.

The coastal plain has the highest concentration of land denning polar bears in America. With climate change impacts and the loss of sea ice habitat, these polar bears are a threatened species. Oil exploration and development should never be allowed in this sensitive area.

In the summer, millions of birds arrive in the Arctic Refuge from six different continents. The coastal plain is a mecca for more than 100 species that nest on the tundra or in the wetlands: tundra swans from Chesapeake Bay, American golden plovers from Patagonia, common loons from the Pacific coast, and Lapland longspurs, many that winter in the heart of America. Every state has a bird species that nests in the Arctic.

The coastal plain is also considered a sacred birthplace by the Gwich’in people of Alaska and Canada. They call it “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” which means “the sacred place where life begins.”

For thousands of years, these Indigenous people have depended on the Porcupine caribou herd for their food and cultural way of life. They are united in their opposition to oil development on the coastal plain and believe the caribou should not be disturbed during their calving and nursery time.

The Gwich’in people assert that proposed oil development on the coastal plain is a human rights violation, threatening their way of life. The sovereign tribes of Arctic Village and Venetie recently filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over this issue, and the Gwich’in were joined by more than a dozen other sovereign states across the continent.

The majority of Americans concur with the Gwich’in, including every conservation group in the country. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not a place for industrial development; leasing the coastal plain to the oil industry clearly violates the original purpose of the Eisenhower administration’s decision to safeguard this extraordinary place.

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Now is the time to speak to your representatives and President-elect Joe Biden, and urge them to do all they can to protect the Arctic Refuge and take the coastal plain off the chopping block. The Jan. 6 oil lease sale should be canceled.

Debbie S. Miller (www.debbiemilleralaska.com) of Alaska is the author of “Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” (Braided River) and a co-founder of the Alaska Wilderness League, a national organization working to protect Alaska’s wildest places. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.