Compass: Protect caribou, oppose drilling in ANWR's coastal plain

(begin ital)"In no case may a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence."

-- International Covenants on Human Rights (end ital)

Since time immemorial the Gwich'in Nation has been reliant upon the Porcupine Caribou Herd whose birthing and calving grounds are on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the Gwich'in language this place is referred to as "Iizhik Gwat'san Gwandaii Goodlit" or "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."

Currently, the herd's population is close to 179,000 and every summer up to 40,000 calves are born on the coastal plain of the refuge. That is a significant number of animals and there are many special reasons why for thousands of years the Porcupine caribou have chosen to return to the coastal plain to give birth and nurse their young. The coastal plain, nestled between the Arctic Ocean to the North and the Brooks Range to the south, provides shelter from predators, relief from insects, and the tundra provides the nutrient rich plants that the caribou must have in order to nurse their young and survive the harsh winters of the Arctic.

Some of you may know this area as the 1002 area (a reference to the management area of ANILCA) and the location where Gov. Parnell would like to do exploratory and seismic drilling. However, his plan is not legal and does not make sense. It proposes to conduct activities that are not allowed under ANILCA. Additionally, at a time when our communities are facing flooding, wildfires, and soil erosion, you would think there are greater priorities for such public funding. In a recent Compass on these pages, Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan on the one hand proposes we use local food sources while on the other threatens to deprive us of our own local and main food source.

If you look at a map of the Gwich'in villages that are located between Northeastern Alaska and Northwestern Canada, you will see they are located along the migratory route of the Porcupine caribou - this is no accident. Our relationship to the Porcupine caribou is sacred and we have a vested interest in the long-term health and viability of this herd as we have always depended upon it and want to secure that relationship for future generations.

While Gov. Parnell and the Alaska State Legislature may aggressively plow ahead with their intent to explore and drill in the coastal plain and put the basis of our local food security in peril, it cannot be ignored that Alaskans came out in droves during the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan public hearings and the Obama Administration was flooded with over 600,000 public comments of support from Americans to designate the Arctic Refuge coastal plain as wilderness. We were greatly relieved to see the Interior Secretary Jewell respond to Parnell's letter stating "this Administration remains opposed to drilling in the Refuge."

We are grateful to the thousands of Alaskans, hundreds of inter-faith groups and organizations and of course, the millions of Americans that recognize that some places are too sacred to drill.

Princess Lucaj is executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee formed in 1988 by the chiefs and elders of the Gwich'in Nation.