I'm not surprised that Alaska's congressional delegation is again pushing hard to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain to oil and gas development. This has been a state goal for more than three decades. If recent media stories are accurate, Alaska's politicians and oil-industry boosters may finally get their way. And that saddens me.
If Sen. Dan Sullivan's recently reported comments are true, it should sadden him too. (More about that later.)
I'm among the Alaskans who believe the coastal plain should be preserved as wilderness, for many reasons. Above all, its true importance has nothing to do with humans. The plain's lands and waters are breeding, nesting, spawning, calving, feeding and denning grounds for caribou, polar bears, musk oxen, wolves, waterfowl, shorebirds, snowy owls, arctic grayling — more than 200 species in all. That helps to explain why many people, including scientists, consider it the Arctic Refuge's "ecological heart."
Alaska's Gwich'in Athabascans have an intimate relationship with that wild heart and they're the people who stand to lose the most if the coastal plain becomes industrialized.
As Gwich'in elder Sarah James once commented, "It's my people who are threatened by this development. We are the ones who have everything to lose. We are the caribou people. Caribou are not just what we eat; they are who we are. They are in our stories and songs and the whole way we see the world. Caribou are our life. Without caribou we wouldn't exist."
Still, "Our fight is not just for the caribou," she added. "It's for the whole ecosystem of Gwich'in country. . . . And our fight is a human rights struggle — a struggle for our rights to be Gwich'in, to be who we are, a part of this land.
"The coastal plain itself is a birthing place for so many creatures that we call it 'Where Life Begins.' "
James eloquently stated her tribe's grave concerns in the 2001 book "Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony." Conceived and compiled by Alaskans Hank Lentfer and Carolyn Servid, the book's many contributors included scientists, poets, conservationists, wilderness explorers and political leaders. Two writings focused on polar bears and the threats they would face if the coastal plain were opened to development. Concerns about their future have only increased since then.
As recently as the late 1990s, Alaska's polar bear population was considered healthy and stable, perhaps even slightly increasing, but its status changed dramatically over the following 15 to 20 years. The southern Beaufort Sea population — which includes the coastal plain — is now dropping. And the scientific consensus is that climate change and associated declines in Arctic sea ice present the greatest danger.
Because of sea ice loss, increased numbers of pregnant female bears now den on land, with much of that occurring on the coastal plain. At the same time, a growing percentage of all Beaufort Sea polar bears are spending their summers on the coastal plain.
So during a time when the Beaufort Sea population has declined significantly and the U.S. government has listed polar bears as globally "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act because of diminished sea ice, polar bears appear to be increasingly reliant on the coastal plain.
Even more than caribou, polar bears may now symbolize what could be lost if the coastal plain were opened to development. Yet great concern remains for the Porcupine Herd — and the many other animals that seasonally inhabit the refuge's ecological heart.
The justifications presented in "Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony" for protecting the coastal plain and keeping it wild are as valid today as in 2001. Yet as polar bears demonstrate, it can be argued that protecting the coastal plain is more important now than ever, because of climate change's effects on Arctic ecosystems and wildlife.
Meanwhile, the arguments for oil and gas development, especially in a remote and fragile place during a time of climate upheaval, have diminished. Our nation needs to put its focus on clean, renewable energy sources. Opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling would only feed an increasingly harmful human addiction.
Given their expansive knowledge of the debate, you'd think Alaska's U.S. senators would work to convince Congress the coastal plain merits protection, not development, especially given Dan Sullivan's recent assertion that he and Lisa Murkowski "care a lot more about the environment, the wildlife, the pristine wilderness in our great amazing state than any other member of (the U.S. Senate)."
Well, Sens. Sullivan and Murkowski, here's a great opportunity to walk that recent talk and show just how much you really care about Alaska's wildlife and wildlands: Change course and help protect the place "Where Life Begins." It would be a grand gesture on behalf of "our great amazing state" especially at a time when leaving fossil fuels in the ground is not only the right, but sensible thing to do, considering all that's at risk, including the well-being of Alaska's future generations.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness."
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