I’m Inupiaq, I live in Kaktovik, and I have subsistence hunted in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more than 30 years. I got involved with protecting the refuge to defend my hunting grounds, and one thing is clear: Opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling is bad for everybody.
What are we going to do for our people? What’s my granddaughter’s life going to be like in 50 years? The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act is supposed to protect our subsistence hunting rights but, when I have tried to cross existing oil fields, security blocked my hunting access. I have asked at public meetings how Arctic Refuge oil leasing would affect access, but no one gives me an answer.
There’s a false perception that Inupiat want drilling. It’s not a Native idea to destroy the land for money, and we’re being misrepresented. Back in 2005, about half the adult residents of Kaktovik signed a petition that was delivered to Congress in opposition to drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. There are many people in my community who oppose drilling but are afraid to speak publicly because drilling proponents try to intimidate us.
Both Inupiat and Gwich’in values include respect for the land and animals. I ask Congress to abide by these values and to address the climate crisis now. We must transition away from fossil fuels, or we will face a global climate catastrophe.
I lead rafting trips and guide clients to view polar bears that are increasingly coming onto the land and the barrier islands near Kaktovik due to the loss of sea ice. My successful ecotourism business has been impacted by COVID-19 and I can’t get permits because, in the last moments of the Trump administration, former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt shut down polar bear guiding by falsely claiming that tour companies are operated by outsiders who trespass on Indigenous lands. I am one of seven Alaska Native guides in Kaktovik who were denied permits to take visitors polar bear viewing due to an unfounded myth. This might put many local tour operators out of business, and ecotourism is a key part of our local economy.
There’s no need for drilling in the Arctic Refuge while the oil industry has access to more than 19 billion barrels of known reserves elsewhere on the North Slope — and even that is too much for the climate. The temperature in my area has already risen 5 degrees. We used to have 400 musk oxen, but they have been gone for three years. There are new species of fish moving into our area, and several hundred caribou died on our island because it rained in February and coated their food with ice. There’s so much coastal erosion that one family lost 400 feet of their allotment’s land.
The polar bears’ sea ice is going away. The Southern Beaufort polar bear population in Alaska has declined 60% in the past dozen years — from 1,300 to about 550. Polar bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and could become extinct in my lifetime, making their shrinking habitat more important than ever. Growing numbers of them are denning on the coastal plain, where oil companies want to drill.
We need to protect the Arctic Refuge and repeal the 2017 Tax Act provision that allows oil exploitation on the coastal plain. We have to stop climate change, and this is one way we can do it. Congress, please act fast on climate change and keep Arctic Refuge oil in the ground.
Robert Thompson is a Vietnam veteran, pilot and grandfather who lives in Kaktovik.
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