Showing “Total Disregard for Indigenous Rights and Public Wishes,” Trump Moves to Open Alaska Wildlife Refuge to Drilling

Demonstrating a “total disregard for Indigenous rights and public wishes,” the Trump administration on Friday moved to expedite oil and gas exploration in previously protected lands in Alaska.

The Interior Department published a notice in the Federal Register announcing a public comment period and plans to draft an environmental impact statement for creating a leasing program for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The filing follows legislation to enable the program that was tacked on to the tax law Republicans forced through Congress last year.

In response, critics who have spent several months fighting the drilling efforts expressed worries about how drilling will impact the region’s native people as well as ANWR’s wildlife; condemned the aggressive timeline for making leases available to fossil fuel companies; and vowed to file lawsuits.

Denouncing the “reckless dash to expedite drilling,” Defenders of Wildlife president Jamie Rappaport Clark declared: “We will not stand by and watch them desecrate this pristine landscape. Drilling would threaten hundreds of species that depend on the coastal plain for survival. It would violate the rights of the Gwich’in people, and further exacerbate the increasing impacts of climate change.”

The Gwich’in people — an indigenous tribe that lives along the migratory route of the Porcupine River Caribou Herd in northern Alaska and Canada — have long opposed drilling in the region.

In a statement posted to Facebook, Bernadette Dementieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said: “The administration has made my people a target. We in turn give notice to those in power that the Gwich’in people will not be silent. We will not stand down.”

“Protecting the coastal plain is protecting our identity, our human rights, and our culture,” Dementieff added. “Those who attempt to exploit this sacred place have taken aim at our communities and human rights.”

“This is a time to make a choice about what our country wants for our future — the preservation of life, climate justice, and wild places for future generations, or a race to the bottom dominated by drilling and greed,” said Alli Harvey, Alaska representative for Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign. “We stand with the Gwich’in Nation as we fight for a better world, starting with safeguarding the Arctic Refuge.”

In a letter (pdf) to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, and eight other Democrats reiterated their opposition to any drilling in ANWR and criticized the Trump administration’s “needless haste.”

“Attempting to rush the leasing process,” they wrote, “is unnecessary, inappropriate, and likely will result in serious harm to one of our nation’s last remaining truly wild areas.”

Noting that “the goal of this timeline is to meet the purely political deadline of holding a lease sale within this presidential term,” they concluded: “Playing politics with our nation’s most important and irreplaceable public lands is irresponsible, and this effort is wholly incompatible with your responsibility to move forward in a way that is compatible with protecting the wilderness and wildlife values of the Refuge and the needs of the Gwich’in people.”