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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Is Not Just Public Land. It’s Sacred Land.

The refuge remains under threat as it approaches its 60th anniversary. Indigenous knowledge and stewardship can save it.

Franklin Mountains are reflected in Schrader Lake in a photo taken on February 1, 2013, in Alaska.

As we approach the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 60th anniversary on December 6, it is important to remember that the past 60 years are a blip within millennia of coexistence and stewardship by Arctic Indigenous peoples. Though these six decades of legislative protections call for celebration, they have also been marred by political conflict and the constant threat of oil extraction on the coastal plain. Redefining the ways in which we understand and manage lands like the Arctic Refuge could be the key to their long-term protection.

Arctic Indigenous peoples’ ways of life depend on this land, which both Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples have stewarded since time immemorial. But these longstanding sacred relationships are now at risk due to the overwhelming push for ownership and extraction in recent decades of Arctic history. Alaska’s congressional delegation, the Trump administration and the oil industry view the coastal plain through an exploitative lens of what can be taken, while Indigenous Land Protectors — people who lead efforts to defend sacred lands — have a spiritual understanding of what this place means and how it must be cared for.

Powerful pro-oil entities in Alaska selectively amplify Indigenous voices in favor of drilling, while minimizing those of Indigenous Land Protectors. This harmful narrative omits the fact that many Alaska Natives must now fight their own government-mandated Native corporations to defend their culture and the wellness of their communities. These corporations, established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 to manage lands on behalf of Alaska Native people, are accountable to their shareholders rather than to tribal governments or tribal citizens. Alaska’s history of commodifying land as resource “warehouses,” as Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said, results in Land Protectors endlessly fighting variations of the same threats.

Today, the Arctic Refuge is closer to being sold off than ever before: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has issued a call for nominations for oil leasing tracts on the coastal plain, and lease sales are presumably on track to occur in the final days of Trump’s presidency. A seismic-testing permit application was submitted to the BLM in October and may be approved as soon as January, allowing destructive thumper trucks, which use thousands of pounds of force to detect the subsurface composition of the land, to traverse the coastal plain. These desperate efforts to advance oil drilling before Trump leaves office highlight the damage that can be done to the Refuge in just four years, despite generations of stewardship and decades of legislative protection. The administration is pursuing these actions in accordance with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, into which Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski added a provision requiring lease sales in the coastal plain, and which has been met with widespread opposition at every juncture in the review process.

It’s clear that as we advocate for long-term protection, we should look beyond the next few decades and envision a time when protection no longer requires continuous political battle. In order to accomplish this, lawmakers need to proactively enact policies that redefine our nation’s relationship to public lands.

President-elect Joe Biden has stated that his administration will halt new drilling on public lands. But as his team transitions into power, it must view places like the Arctic Refuge not only as public lands, but as sacred lands. Stopping oil exploration and extraction in the Arctic Refuge may require a complicated process of halting seismic testing and reversing lease sales, and must be a day one priority for our new president.

The administration should also take long overdue steps to incorporate local traditional knowledge and practices of original Land Protectors in ongoing land-management plans. The global burden of fighting extractive industry has fallen on grassroots Indigenous organizers for far too long — while these communities face the greatest impacts of the climate crisis, they also lead the charge to combat it. It is time for a dramatic shift.

To ensure the wellness of our nation’s lands and waters for the next generations and beyond, let’s begin by implementing and uplifting Indigenous knowledge and worldviews, which have sustained ecosystems for thousands of years. Original land stewards should be in positions to make land-management decisions at every level, including the Department of the Interior. The federal government must prioritize the rights, sovereignty and health of Indigenous tribal nations in order to combat the climate crisis, and complete a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuel dependency.

For over 40 years, the Gwich’in Nation has fought tirelessly alongside allies, from Alaska to Canada to Washington, D.C., and across the world, working to defend the Arctic Refuge from oil extraction. Today, Gwich’in and Iñupiat Land Protectors are working in solidarity with allies to lead efforts — from direct actions to corporate campaigns — that are instrumental in preventing drilling on the coastal plain. Looking forward to a better future for the next generations, we must look for long-term solutions that will create lasting change.

We know that Indigenous land management is key to long-term ecological health: current Indigenous land stewardship accounts for 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Indigenous knowledge systems can show our government how to create a more sustainable future for Arctic communities, the coastal plain and the planet. We hope the incoming administration and the American people will stand with us in ensuring lasting protection for the next 60 years, and beyond.

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