The Trump administration officially opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for business last week, but Indigenous leaders won’t sit by and let oil and gas interests destroy it. On Monday, 13 groups filed a lawsuit against the federal government with hopes of stopping any extractive drilling before it happens.
The Gwich’in Steering Committee has been at the forefront of the efforts to protect the refuge since even before President Donald Trump was a thing. However, Trump is the president who proclaimed the region open for drilling with the help of Republicans in Congress. It’s awful news for anyone who cares about the planet and the fragile ecosystems in the Arctic. But the move hits differently for the Gwich’in.
Many members of the Gwich’in Nation rely on the Porcupine caribou herd for food and cultural identity. This herd currently heads to the refuge’s 1.5 million-acre coastal plain to calve its young once a year. This is the exact location the federal government is opening up for oil and gas leases. The current economic situation doesn’t exactly make fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic very enticing, but these communities aren’t going to risk companies ruining these sacred grounds.
“The Gwich’in Nation has survived in partnership with the Porcupine caribou herd for tens of thousands of years on our Native homelands,” said Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwich’in Nation, in an emailed statement. “We now see some Republican leaders willfully pose a greater threat to the largest land animal migration left on earth, our brother the caribou and their life-giving calving grounds. The record of decision validates our experience of the erosion of integrity in assessments, process, and respect.”
The lawsuit—with plaintiffs that include the Alaska Wilderness League, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, and the Sierra Club—targets the Department of Interior. The agency oversees the lands that could be opened for oil and gas. Plaintiffs are arguing that the department “rushed” its environmental review and failed to adequately assess the potential damage oil and gas leasing could inflict on the refuge. They allege the federal government has broken at least seven laws in approving this leasing, including the National Environmental Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.
“The agency’s failure threatens the exceptional resources of the Coastal Plain and the subsistence, cultural, and spiritual connection between the Gwich’in People and the Coastal Plain,” the complaint reads, also calling the lands “iconic and sacred.”
The lawsuit is calling for the reversal of all agency approvals and to pause any leasing activities at the refuge. The federal government is sure to fight back, especially with Alaska Republicans doing everything in their power to make drilling the Arctic a reality since the state relies so heavily on oil and gas revenue. This lawsuit has the potential to protect the refuge a little while longer. For members of the Gwich’in Nation, this protection is integral to their way of life.