Wilderness is the right designation for ANWR's coastal plain

Last week, Sens. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill to protect the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. The Arctic refuge, located in the northeast corner of Alaska, is where the Porcupine caribou herd go to birth and nurse their young, and is the one of the last onshore denning areas for polar bears. Given the circumstances we face with climate change, the significance of the refuge being one of the last remaining intact Arctic ecosystems on our planet cannot be underscored enough. Each spring, more than 40,000 caribou calves are born on the coastal plain of the refuge -- a miracle of God's creation. In Gwich'in this place is referred to as "Iizhik gwats'an gwandaii goodlit" or "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."

Protecting the coastal plain and our traditional way of life is a matter of basic human rights. These rights are a part of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states, "by no means shall a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence." You cannot separate the land and waters of the Arctic from the Inupiaq and Gwich'in peoples' survival. Our people live off of the bounty of the land and waters of the Arctic -- it is how we feed our families and our spirits. The resiliency of our communities is based solely on the ecological well-being of the land, waters, and animals we coexist with.

While Gov. Bill Walker and the Alaska Legislature may continue to aggressively plow ahead with their intent to drill for oil in the heart of the coastal plain, putting the basis of our local food security in peril, it cannot be ignored that Alaskans and millions Americans came out in droves to support designating the refuge's coastal plain as wilderness. We are grateful to President Barack Obama and U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, along with their staff who worked diligently to recommend that designation for the lands we have subsisted on since time immemorial.

We say 'Mahsi' choo!' and 'Quyanagpak!' -- thank you very much to Sens. Bennett and Markey for taking the next step in getting Congress to pass a wilderness designation that would protect our food security and our cultural traditions once and for all. In fact, the senators have been successful in garnering 32 co-sponsors for this bill -- a historic first --reflecting the growing support in Congress for this American treasure.

Ninety-five percent of the entire North Slope is already open to development. Let's protect this last remaining 5 percent of our coast. The coastal plain is sacred and we have a responsibility to protect the land and animals of the refuge and of the Arctic. Some places should remain untouched and protected from destructive drilling and development -- the coastal plain is one of these places.

We hope others will join Bennett and Markey in keeping the Arctic refuge wild for future generations, as generations have before us.

Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Princess Lucaj) is an actress and writer and former executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, which opposes oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Allison Akootchook Warden is an Inupiaq artist born and raised in Fairbanks, with close ties to her mother's home village of Kaktovik on the northern edge of the refuge.

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