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ANWR wilderness is vital to caribou, Gwich'in people in Alaska

For thousands of years, the Gwich'in people have lived in the Arctic, taking care of the land and animals. We treat caribou and other creatures with reverence because, without them, we would not survive.

To my people, wilderness is not a luxury or indulgence. It is a necessity. We feed our families and sustain our culture by living on the land, taking only what we need, and caring for our clean air, clean water and abundant wildlife.

As politicians in Washington, D.C., argue over what should be done with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Gwich'in people say that, to us, protecting the refuge from oil and gas development is a matter of human rights. The survival of the Gwich'in Nation is at stake.

President Obama's administration has recommended that Congress designate the coastal plain and other areas of the refuge as wilderness to ensure that the land will remain wild forever. We support this recommendation because if drilling hurt the Porcupine caribou herd, the Gwich'in would likely disappear.

"Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit," is what we call the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. This means "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins." The caribou come here every summer to birth their calves and nurse them until they are ready to migrate.

We depend on the caribou and the land for food, clothing such as leg-skin boots, and our subsistence way of life. We cannot afford to take risks with them. The oil companies say they want to use only a small portion of the coastal plain, but wherever they go in the Arctic they destroy huge areas of land.

Pregnant caribou and nursing caribou stay away from roads, pipelines, traffic and drill rigs. We know this from development northwest of us in the Arctic. Porcupine caribou give birth only on the coast, and only on wild lands.

If drilling happened and affected the Porcupine herd -- about 180,000 animals -- its future would be threatened. And so would the Gwich'in people and our villages. If the caribou lose land, we will lose caribou. Without them, we cannot feed our families or teach our young people the traditional subsistence way of life. Our children will move to cities, and our community -- and our culture -- will cease to exist.

When I was a boy in Arctic Village, I was taught to take care of the land and animals. The border with Canada was open, so the Gwich'in traveled freely between Arctic Village and Old Crow, and people traveled to the refuge to get caribou for their families and communities.

Today, many people want to drill for oil and gas on the land that keeps the Gwich'in Nation alive. Their trucks, rigs and pollution would drive away the caribou, damage water quality and destroy habitat for the birds we hunt.

Oil companies and members of Congress do not want more wilderness. They want profits and a full pipeline. But those things are temporary. The damage they leave is permanent. If the caribou go away and the Gwich'in culture dies, it can never be restored.

We are grateful to President Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell for recommending that 12.28 million acres of the Arctic Refuge be declared wilderness and protected forever. This way we know all of the important land for the Porcupine caribou will be protected and the herd will not go the way of the great bison herds.

The 19.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are a treasure for all Americans, but to the Gwich'in, protecting these wild lands is the only way to ensure that our grandchildren's grandchildren will be able to live as our ancestors did. The hard work of our traditional way of life is good for Gwich'in people.

Wilderness is not a luxury. Wilderness is a way of life.

Trimble Gilbert is the traditional chief of Arctic Village, where he and his wife raised their family in the foothills of the Brooks Range at the southern edge of the Arctic Refuge.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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