As elected Iñupiat leaders and lifelong residents of Alaska’s North Slope, we are fiercely proud of our ancestors and their quest for self-determination. Despite living in the most extreme climate in the United States, the Iñupiat have sustained our communities while staying true to our cultural values and traditional subsistence way of living.
Yet when it comes to Alaska’s proposed Willow Project, the voices of the people whose ancestral homeland is most impacted have largely been ignored.
We know our lands and our communities better than anyone, and we know that resource development and our subsistence way of life are not mutually exclusive. Responsible resource development with the inclusion and engagement of North Slope Iñupiat has taken place for over 50 years. It exemplifies a positive model of cultural, economic and ecological interdependence.
Our nation’s past and present have relied on responsible natural resource development, and the sustainability of our Alaska Native communities on the North Slope requires it to be a part of our future.
Located in the northeast portion of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A), the Willow Project has widespread support across Alaska — especially from the entities that represent the Iñupiat people of the North Slope. Its potential economic benefits would represent a once-in-a-lifetime investment in our region and state, not to mention the entire country.
Willow is expected to generate $1.25 billion in taxes for the North Slope Borough — funding that will be used to provide basic services like education, fire protection, law enforcement and more. The project is also expected to add more than $2.5 billion to the NPR-A Impact Mitigation Grant Program. Our respective cities rely on revenues from this program to fund projects that provide long-term quality-of-life improvements in our communities.
The city of Wainwright has been fortunate to receive NPR-A Impact Mitigation funding since 1994 to support local government operations, including local government and municipal administration, cultural and recreational activities, staff and facilities. Funds since 2007 have gone toward city’s youth program, including providing a safe, supportive environment for youth as well as recreational and cultural activities. Our city park would not be here if not for NPR-A funding, nor would the city’s lagoon boat ramp, used by residents for subsistence activities.
We anticipate future NPR-A grant funding will continue to support important local government and youth programs for the city and, in the long term, will play a critical role in funding a new recreation center for youth and community programs, a replacement of the aging Wainwright City Hall and other important community facilities.
Utqiaġvik is considered the hub of the North Slope, home to 5,000 residents as well as the regional tribal college, hospital and borough government. Funding from NPR-A has already covered fire and alarm security systems in municipal buildings, much-needed renovations to our community recreational center, and a variety of subsistence and recreational operations. Grant funding will help us design a community soup kitchen to ensure our neighbors do not go hungry in winter. We have also been able to purchase equipment to dig graves in year-round permafrost — critical because our city does not have enough freezers to keep the deceased, requiring us to bury a loved one within days even in the dead of winter.
These are not basic services Utqiaġvik takes for granted. We need a stable, healthy economy to continue receiving them.
Here in the North Slope, we straddle the line of a traditional subsistence way of living and the economic realities of the modern world. Yet without critical funds made available through responsible natural resource development, many of our people would be forced to leave the lands they have inhabited for thousands of years, thereby extinguishing many of the important characteristics of Iñupiaq culture.
We never cease to be amazed that our remote corner of the world offers such a valuable resource to the rest of the country and beyond. Resources under our ancestral lands have helped sustain not just the North Slope, but all Alaskans and fellow Americans living in the Lower 48.
For the past 50 years, we have worked to ensure that our ancestral homelands and traditional subsistence lifestyles are protected while development occurs. We are not ready to give up that balance now — and Willow is respectful of the future we envision.
It’s time for Washington, D.C. to listen to the voices of Alaska Native communities on the North Slope and approve Willow without further delay or deferral.
Asisaun Toovak is mayor of the City of Utqiaġvik and Chester Ekak is mayor of the City of Wainwright. Both localities sit in Alaska’s North Slope, the site of the proposed Willow Project.
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