In early June, members of the Gwich’in Nation concluded a tour through Colorado and the American southwest, raising awareness and building support to protect a place that is sacred to them and their cultural heritage: the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. While the Arctic Refuge may seem like a distant land, it belongs to all Americans and we will determine its fate.
Sadly, despite broad public support for protecting this iconic place, the threat of oil drilling there is very real, especially under the current administration. Earlier this year, President Trump released his 2018 budget proposal which called for drilling in the pristine, fragile Arctic Refuge. And now, following Trump’s lead, the House Budget Committee’s 2018 fiscal budget includes a thinly veiled effort to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is completely out of touch with the American people, who overwhelmingly support protecting the Arctic Refuge from drilling and would prefer the country focus on shifting to cleaner and cheaper energy sources. instead of using the U.S. budget to drill in one of a kind places like the Arctic Refuge.
Drilling advocates would say that we need the oil located beneath the Arctic Refuge for our own energy security, but the truth is that U.S. oil exports hit record levels in 2016. Opening the Arctic Refuge might put some coins in the oil industry’s pockets, but it will not make us any more secure. Instead, it will threaten the caribou, musk oxen, wolves, all three species of North American bears, and nearly 200 species of migratory birds that migrate to six continents and all 50 states that call the Arctic Refuge home.
The Arctic Refuge, like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park, deserves protection. We know a little about protecting special places here in Colorado. In the last handful of years, we have been lucky enough to witness the designation of two new national monuments – at Chimney Rock and Browns Canyon. Local leaders in the communities surrounding the two monuments say the economic gains have been significant. And like the Arctic Refuge, these two areas are important not only for their beauty, wildlife values and recreation possibilities, but because of their cultural significance.
Those familiar with Chimney Rock are well aware of the meaning it holds to tribes such as the modern Pueblo Indians, and its history as an ancient lunar observatory – drawing comparisons as a naturally occurring Stonehenge. Archaeological sites within the Browns Canyon national monument area have produced stone artifacts attributed to the Paleo-Indian and early Archaic periods.
The Gwich’in homelands extend from northeast Alaska to the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. Oral tradition indicates the Gwich’in have occupied this area for as long as 20,000 years. Still to this day, the Gwich’in people depend on the caribou for food, clothing, tools, and as a source of spiritual guidance. Protecting the Arctic Refuge is a matter of human rights.
In Colorado, we treasure our public lands, and our national monument designations enjoyed strong, bipartisan local support. The Arctic Refuge has enjoyed similar support. The Arctic Refuge is a rare instance where Democrats, Republicans and independents from across the country have come together to protect our shared natural heritage. Recent polling shows that a majority of Americans (67 percent) support protecting the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling, and a majority of those – 52 percent – are “strongly opposed.”
I have lived in Colorado most of my life, from the front range to the Four Corners region, and now as a resident of Boulder. I’m thankful to Senator Michael Bennet for introducing a bill in the U.S. Senate that would designate the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge as Wilderness. I am also thankful to our congressional members like Reps. Diana DeGette, Jared Polis and Earl Perlmutter, who have co-sponsored similar legislation in the House of Representatives. I urge Senator Cory Gardner to join his fellow lawmakers in supporting this legislation – to make sure that sacred and historic places like the Arctic Refuge will remain so for generations to come.