We stand with the Gwich’in in court to protect sacred lands in the Arctic Refuge
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We stand with the Gwich’in in court to protect sacred lands in the Arctic Refuge

Caribou in the Arctic Refuge. Photo by Florian Schulz

The Gwich’in Steering Committee and allied groups took Trump’s Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management to court today over a leasing program that would give the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil industry.

The administration adopted a devastating leasing plan on Aug. 17 that would hand over sacred and public lands to international oil companies while violating the public trust and human rights, and ignoring the harms done to land, water, wildlife and people.

 “The Interior Secretary cannot ignore us anymore,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the lead plaintiff in the suit. “He has to answer to us in court. This administration has cast aside and trampled on our concerns, our knowledge, and our rights as Gwich’in People throughout this process. Once again we stand up and make them hear us. We will do everything to protect these sacred lands.”

Broken process, faulty results

Trustees filed the lawsuit on behalf of 13 clients charging the agency with violating the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

“BLM rushed its analysis, curtailed public participation, shortchanged Indigenous input and concerns, and omitted science and facts,” said Brook Brisson, senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, in a press release. “The decision-making process has been fundamentally flawed from day one. It’s no surprise that the outcome is a leasing program that flagrantly breaks the law and fails to respect and protect human rights, the public trust, and one of our nation’s most iconic public lands.”

Photo by Florian Schulz.

Given the problems raised throughout the process, it is clear that the administration’s flawed program allowing for desecrating sacred lands to exploit oil during a climate crisis will only do damage.

“Like the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the Gwich’in Nation spans borders,” said Jeffrey Peter, Vuntut Gwich’in, Old Crow, Yukon, Canada, in a Gwich’in Steering Committee press release about the lawsuit. “We are deeply connected and our fates are intertwined. Gwich’in have depended on vadzaih – caribou – for countless generations and they are the heart of our cultural and individual identities. There’s no doubt that vadzaih will be negatively impacted by development in the Arctic Refuge and, in turn, so will the Gwich’in. We are fighting for the right to continue the independent and proud lifestyle that we have lived for thousands of years.”

Forever protecting sacred lands

Since its founding in 1974, Trustees has worked to protect the Arctic Refuge—a long time from the perspective of a human life—but the Gwich’in Nation has protected the coastal plain as sacred land since time immemorial. Stopping the exploitation of the coastal plain is not a cause for the Gwich’in Peoples of Alaska and Canada. It is their daily life and generations of protecting sacred lands.

“When this administration said it would let oil companies desecrate the entire coastal plain, it let us know that they had no respect for our food security or our way of life,” said Kaila Druck, Gwich’in Youth Council Fort Yukon/Chalkytsik Alaska. “Our elders directed us to protect the Porcupine Caribou Herd calving grounds and to never trample the sacred lands where they give birth. Those who push for drilling on this place disrespect our knowledge, our way of life, our elders and our future. We will forever protect this place.”

Trustees for Alaska represents 13 clients in the lawsuit: Gwich’in Steering Committee, Alaska Wilderness League, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society-Yukon Chapter, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment America, Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, National
Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Wilderness Watch.