Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Attorney: Matthew N. Newman, Wesley James Furlong

In 2017, Congress enacted legislation opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. The Bureau of Land Management immediately began the process to review the environmental impacts of oil and gas development in the area, setting a political timeline that seeks to complete leasing sales in the region before the next presidential election. NARF represents the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Venetie Village Council, and Artic Village Council, three federally recognized Gwich’in tribes working tirelessly to protect their way of life and oppose oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. NARF is working with its tribal and technical experts who specialize in the Arctic environment to represent its tribal clients during the environmental and preservation review processes. This involvement means that the Tribes have been at the decision-making table from the outset, influencing the scope and direction of the processes, rather than being just spectators.

Background

Donate Now buttonFor more than 40 years, the oil and gas industry has tried to gain access to the resources under the the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A pristine landscape, we the citizens have fought to keep the Refuge wild. But now, the Trump Administration and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski are making progress towards delivering the refuge to their friends in the oil and gas industry.

With the help of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the oil and gas industry inserted a provision into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 allowing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be opened to oil and gas development. Oil and gas asked, Senator Murkowski provided. And now, the current administration is bending over backwards to get oil and gas leases in-hand before the next presidential election. Processes that usually take years—to ensure that facts are known and everyone affected by the proposed action has a chance to be heard—are being pushed through in mere months.

Photo of Caribou.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd calves each year in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Arctic Refuge is a breathtaking, untouched landscape—one of very few remaining in the world. The Refuge is part of the ancestral range of the Gwitch’in people and home to 37 species of land mammals, 8 marine mammals, 42 fish species, and more than 200 migratory bird species. It is also the calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou herd. The Gwich’in people enjoy a close and lasting relationship with the caribou, which are a main source of subsistence as well as a spiritual and cultural treasure for local communities. The Gwich’in have maintained their culture, identity, and integrity as traditional indigenous inhabitants of the area with sacred relationships to the land and caribou. They are a people who have yet to be corrupted and colonized, and their culture relies upon and honors the caribou and the ancestral homelands that have provided for them for thousands of years. For them, the Refuge’s Coastal Plain is Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

Case Updates

September 9, 2020

The Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council, and Venetie Village Council (collectively “the Tribes”) filed a lawsuit against Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and the Trump Administration to protect the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known to the Tribes as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, the Sacred Place Where Life Begins, from oil and gas development.  Today’s suit represents the latest in a decades long effort by the Tribes to protect the Coastal Plain, a region of incredible cultural and religious significance to the Tribes and their people.  Fifteen state governments, led by the State of Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson, stood alongside the Tribes today by filing a separate lawsuit that seeks to preserve this national treasure and protect their states’ interests combating climate change and protecting migratory birds.

After filing the suit in the federal District Court for Alaska, Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government First Chief Margorie Gemmill stated, “The Coastal Plain is one of the most important natural, cultural, and subsistence resources to the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in of Arctic Village and Venetie and to the Gwich’in people as a whole. The cultural identity of the Gwich’in people as caribou people is intertwined with the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving areas in the Coastal Plain. Any impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd from changes in migration patterns, lower fertility rates, and loss of habitat will have significant adverse social, cultural, spiritual, and subsistence impacts on our people.  This process must be stopped.  As tribal governments we will defend the rights of our people at all costs.”

First Chief Galen Gilbert of the Arctic Village Council stated, “Our people are united in the defense of our way of life.  As tribal governments, we have a responsibility to our citizens to defend this sacred place.  I am thankful we are joined in this effort by other state governments who likewise share this duty of responsibility to their people. Together, we will protect this sacred place.  Not only for the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in, but for all Americans.”

Elder spokesperson for Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government Sarah James stated, “As Neets’aii Gwich’in, our biggest concern is our way of life and who we are. From the beginning of time, we’ve depend on caribou for our way of life. We take care of the caribou, and in return, they take care of us, and that’s really important to my people. And this—the coastal plain—is the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, not only for caribou, but for many other animals who are born there and raise their young there because it’s a safe place away from predators. It’s a place we call Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit. That means the ‘sacred place where life begins.’ And it should be kept that way because there’s no other place they can go to. It is the core of the caribou existence and Gwich’in existence.”

August 17, 2020 

Today, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed the record of decision approving oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Coastal Plain. This approval represents the latest move by the Trump Administration to rapidly develop lands significant to the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in Tribes. The Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council, and Venetie Village Council (collectively “the Tribes”) are unequivocally opposed to development in the Coastal Plain and will continue to fight to protect the Coastal Plain and their way of life.

In 2017, Congress enacted tax reform legislation that included a provision opening the Coastal Plain to oil and gas development. In less than a year, the Trump Administration slapped together an environmental impact statement based on preexisting data and research from other regions in Alaska. The environmental impact statement goes so far as removing specific references to Gwich’in cultural and subsistence resources in an effort to down play the negative effects development would cause. Like the environmental impact statement, the record of decision brushes aside the Tribes’ subsistence and cultural connection to the Coastal Plain in favor of oil industry interests.

Approval of the Coastal Plain oil and gas leasing program comes at a time when the Tribes are tirelessly working to protect the health and well-being of their communities from the increasing threats such as climate change and the spread of COVID-19. The decision to rush ahead with oil and gas development despite the COVID-19 pandemic forces the Tribes to choose between devoting limited time and resources to protecting their communities, or protecting their way of life from the catastrophic effects of development in the Coastal Plain.

In response to the approval of the record of decision, Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government First Chief Margorie Gemmill stated: “The Coastal Plain is one of the most important natural, cultural, and subsistence resources to the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in of Arctic Village and Venetie and to the Gwich’in people as a whole. The cultural identity of the Gwich’in people as caribou people is intertwined with the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving areas in the Coastal Plain. Any impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd from changes in migration patterns, lower fertility rates, and loss of habitat will have significant adverse social, cultural, spiritual, and subsistence impacts on our people. This process must be stopped. We call on all our allies to join the Gwich’in in opposing this attack on our way of life.”

June 21, 2019

The NARF Legal Review is published semi-annually and provides updates on NARF’s cases and information on other timely Indian law topics. The  Winter/Spring 2019 edition describes efforts to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

 

February 26, 2019

In its ongoing efforts to fast track oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before the next presidential election, the Bureau of Land Management released a hastily prepared Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) at the end of December. The draft EIS is far from adequate and does not comply with legal requirements.

About the Draft

In less than a year, the Trump Administration slapped together an Environmental Impact Statement, based on pre-existing data and research from other regions in Alaska.  The draft EIS brushes aside the subsistence and cultural resources of the local Tribes. Under the law, an EIS is supposed to consider all potential impacts on the environment and local communities, but this document falls well-short of that requirement.  For example, it does not include an adequate analysis of the effects on the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which calves on the Refuge’s coastal plain, or the Gwich’in Tribes who depend on them; the analysis fails to include Native knowledge from the people most intimately familiar with the region; and, as it compares outcomes for alternative scenarios, it does not even consider the option of NOT opening the Coastal Plain to leasing.

The draft goes so far as to boldly declare that oil and gas development in the caribou calving grounds will have no impact on the Tribe’s subsistence hunting practices. Even as it acknowledged that oil and gas development could change migration patterns and lower calving rates, it’s narrow and incomplete analysis incorrectly concluded that Gwich’in subsistence use would not be affected.

Let the BLM know that it must follow the law and provide a thorough and accurate analysis of the effects of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. Make a difference and submit your comments today.

How to Comment

Review the Draft EIS on the BLM website.

To comment, visit https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/eplanning/comments/commentSubmission.do?commentPeriodId=74027

Points to Consider as You Write Your Comment

  • The analysis is based on incomplete and outdated scientific information about the effects of energy development on the Coastal Plain. The agency did not take steps to obtain more information or even identify the missing information—both of which are required by law.
  • A thorough analysis requires participation of all affected parties. BLM has not consulted with all of the Gwich’in tribes (as required by law). The BLM must allow all community members to have a voice in this process.
  • The agency cannot gauge the effects on the Porcupine Caribou Herd without complete and accurate information. This includes addressing gaps in current Western scientific data and incorporating the traditional knowledge of the peoples who have practiced subsistence living in the area since time immemorial.
  • The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was established in part to conserve wildlife and protect subsistence uses. If the refuge is opened to oil and gas development, how will those goals be met?
  • The Refuge also fulfills US-Canada treaty obligations related to the conservation of the Porcupine Caribou herd. The agency must detail how exactly it will fulfill those treaty obligations if it allows oil and gas development in the region.
  • The draft statement fails to include the potential effects of seismic activity of related oil and gas exploration. Seismic exploration is part of the oil and gas development process and should be included in the full analysis.

February 19, 2019Photos of people meeting in DC

Last week, eight tribal representatives testified in DC about the importance of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Thank you to everyone who helped make sure that Native voices were heard.

February 7, 2019

In December, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a slap-dash Environmental Impact Statement knowingly based on inaccurate, outdated, and incomplete information. Now, with the federal government briefly open, they have scheduled all of the required public hearings (seven in Alaska and one in DC) to happen between February 5 and February 13!

And, these “public hearings” will be highly unusual. They will consist of a presentation by the BLM, followed by a court reporter meeting privately with attendees to record their comments. This uncommon procedure diminishes the force of testimony and deflates public discourse. It is obvious that the regulators don’t want to hear from the people, they want this process done as quickly and quietly as possible. This is clearly a tactic to suppress concerned voices, including those of the Gwich’in people.

We must hold the government accountable. Don’t let the BLM take away people’s voices. Don’t let one senator, on behalf of one industry, undo the will of the people!

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December 20, 2018

The Bureau of Land Management today released the draft Environmental Impact Statement for oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This release represents the latest move by the Trump Administration to rapidly develop public lands significant to the region’s federally recognized Neets’ąįį Gwich’in Tribes.

In less than a year, the Trump Administration slapped together an Environmental Impact Statement, based on pre-existing data and research from other regions in Alaska, that brushes aside the subsistence and cultural resources of the Tribes. The draft goes so far as to boldly declare that oil and gas development in the caribou calving grounds will have no impact at all on the Tribe’s subsistence hunting practices. The Tribes, with attorneys from the Native American Rights Fund, are working tirelessly to halt any attempt to develop the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Coastal Plain.

“Today’s release was done with no prior notification to our Tribal Councils, who have met with the BLM for months on a government-to-government basis,” said Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government Executive Director Tonya Garnett. “What’s even more disrespectful is to release this just before our villages are gathering together to celebrate the holidays. The total lack of regard to our tribal governments on an issue of such importance really demonstrates how BLM leadership views their trust responsibility to our Tribes. Our people and the caribou are bound together, and their fate is the same as ours. We will never stop in the defense of our way of life.”