Caribou protection vital to a way of life

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asking the people of Anchorage about a new management plan for the refuge. I hope you will join me in calling for permanent protection of the refuge's coastal plain from oil development. Here's why I need your help.

The Gwich'in are caribou people. Caribou has provided for us since the beginning of time. Caribou is in our tools, clothing, songs and stories. If you marked on a map where the Gwich'in have always lived and also where the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrates, you would see how we live together. If you came to visit me at my village you would find caribou in every house and freezer in town.

Just as we rely on caribou, the caribou depend on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain. This is the birthplace and nursery grounds, where every Porcupine caribou calf gets its start in life. Even when deep snows mean the calves are born on Canada side, the mothers will bring their calves to the coastal plain as soon as they can. We call it "Izhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit" -- the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

Oil development here in the birthplace and nursery grounds would hurt the Porcupine caribou and threaten the future of my people. When oil development near Prudhoe Bay got too close, the caribou moved their calving area away, but there was lots of good ground and the herd grew. In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the mountains come close to the ocean, and the caribou have nowhere else to go. The biologists believe oil development here would make the herd decline even if the oil companies do everything right. It is not because of oil spills or some other accident. After migrating hundreds of miles and giving birth the cows and their calves are just too sensitive.

We believe we have a right to continue our way of life, and that right is guaranteed by the United States in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the Senate, which reads in part: "...In no case may a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence."

We do have alternative sources of energy, and we have conservation. We have choices, but the Porcupine caribou don't have a choice. They will go where they have always gone to have their young, and then return to the Gwich'in as they always have.

There are some places so important for other reasons -- for the animals, for the Earth and for human rights that they should be respected. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain is one of them.

Sarah James, Neet'sai Gwich'in, is chairperson of the Gwich'in Steering Committee. She lives in Arctic Village. The public hearing on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ANWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan is today from 3- 9:30 p.m. at the Wilda Marston Theatre of Loussac Library, 3600 Denali St. in Anchorage.