The Obama administration recently asked congress to increase federal protection for millions of acres within Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The White House is seeking “wilderness” level protection for 12 of the 19 million acres that make up the refuge. Wilderness status is the highest level of federal protection available for public lands and would prohibit a range of activities, including oil and gas drilling.
“Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place — pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it’s very fragile,” President Obama said in a video.
ANWR was created under President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and ever since then there has been conflict over how to manage the refuge, especially its significant petroleum reserves.
In 2002, Sarah James was awarded the Goldman Prize as part of a trio of Gwich’in tribal leaders, who defended ANWR from oil drilling, protecting the heart of the refuge’s wildlife habitat and coastal plain. James released this statement on the White House’s proposal:
Last month, President Obama asked Congress to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain from oil and gas drilling, so that it may remain forever as wilderness.
This area is world famous for caribou, polar bears, wolves and musk-ox, and hundreds of different birds. In our language we call the coastal plain “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
The Gwich’in are caribou people. Caribou from the Porcupine herd are born there every year, and have fed our people for countless generations. Oil development there would hurt the caribou and threaten our people. The mountains are so close to the ocean there, the cows and calves have nowhere else to go.
To us, this is a human rights issue. We have the right to continue our own way of life, and we are so thankful for Obama’s decision.
We still have a long way to go, but for now, please join us in thanking this President for his support for conservation and human rights in the Arctic.
Sarah James, Arctic Village
Chair, Gwich’in Steering Committee