Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, has e-mailed supporters that Sarah James, spokeswoman for the Gwich’in tribe of native Alaskans, is in Washington to tell Congress the “truth” about proposed oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and will stay there until Congress votes. Gwich’in objections to drilling have been the centerpiece of environmentalist opposition for years.
It’s a compelling story. A poor Alaskan native tribe, calling itself “the Caribou people,” fights desperately to save the Porcupine Caribou herd, which roams the region, providing the tribe’s sustenance. But that is not the whole story; it is far from the whole truth.
If James tells Congress the whole truth, she will say that in 1971 the Gwich’in was virtually alone among native tribes in electing not to participate in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). To have done so would have required sharing, with the other tribes, in Alaskan natural resource revenues. Instead, the Gwich’in chose to own, control and keep for themselves all revenues from 1.8 million acres in their former reservation.
If James tells Congress the whole truth, she will say the Gwich’in actively and aggressively sought oil exploration on Gwich’in lands until it was discovered Gwich’in lands contained no oil. She will say the Alaskan Gwich’in twice leased land to the oil companies she so vilifies today and tried unsuccessfully twice again. She will say in 1984 she herself signed a request for proposal from oil companies to drill in the totality of Gwich’in lands. She will say in 2001 the Gwich’in across the Canadian border formed a corporation for oil exploration.
If James tells Congress the whole truth, she will say the only human threat to the Porcupine Caribou population, estimated to be about 123,000, has thus far been the Gwich’in, whose hunters kill more than 3,000 each year (a fact, not a criticism).
If James tells Congress the whole truth, she will say the Gwich’in don’t live in ANWR, much less anywhere near the proposed drilling site, so her frequent use of the word “local” is a somewhat stretched euphemism. The Inupuit are local to the proposed drilling site, and the Inupuit support exploration.
If James tells Congress the whole truth, she will explain that ANWR is a land mass of 19.6 million acres. She will say only 2,000 acres, about three square miles, only one one-hundredth of ANWR, will be explored, and even then by using technologically advanced methods with the least possible surface footprint and disruption. She will say those areas of ANWR specifically designated as “wilderness” and “refuge,” some 17.16 million acres, will not be touched, by law.
If James tells Congress the whole truth, she will verify the Porcupine Caribou only venture near the proposed drilling area in ANWR’s 1.5 million-acre Coastal Plain for approximately two weeks each year, if at all. While the herd does calve in the Coastal Plain, research by this writer using 23 consecutive years of migration data indicates that not once in those 23 years has high-density calving occurred in the proposed drilling area. For 14 of those years, the Porcupine Caribou did not calve anywhere near the proposed drilling area at all. In nine of those years, some outliers of the herd have calved at the fringes of the proposed drilling area.
But what if the Porcupine Caribou decide to calve smack dab on top of the proposed drilling area in years to come? Well, the Central Arctic Caribou herd calves in the Prudhoe Bay area where oil exploration has been intense for three decades. In the early 1970s, while oil exploration there was developing, the population of that herd was estimated at 5,000. Today, it is estimated at 32,000, a more than six-fold increase, at or near range-carrying capacity.
No brief piece can tell the whole story regarding ANWR, oil exploration, the Porcupine Caribou or the Gwich’in. We’ll leave that to Sarah James. Schweiger has promised she will tell Congress the truth. She should tell it all, because this country needs the oil, the more than 200 Alaskan tribes who support exploration need the economic development, and the shameless, deceptive fear-mongering that has stalled exploration for more than a decade needs to end.