SNU in Alaska: Refuge battle pits indigenous against big oil


Courtesy photo

Brayden Stephenson, Brennan Lagasse, Kayla Heidenreich, and Robert Thompson gathered in Alaska’s Boreal Rainforest.

Brayden Stephenson, Managing Editor

We touched ground at 2:10 p.m., there’s an uneasy feeling in my stomach. The uncertainty of our travels is now becoming our reality and I didn’t know what to expect. Iñupiaq Elder, polar bear guide and activist, Robert Thompson, picks us up from the airport, and even then it still doesn’t hit me that we are in Alaska. For a trip that wasn’t supposed to happen, things are coming together with fluidity and serendipity on our side. By the looks of it you may think that our crew has it all figured out, all the logistics covered and prepared for an activism-driven expedition of a lifetime but make no mistake we are totally winging it at this point.
A few weeks prior I received a text from SNU professor, doctor of sustainability, activist, and mystic skier, Brennan Lagasse. He teaches a course highlighting indigenous rights issues and conservation efforts that came along with the 50-plus year fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A trip that had been in the works for months suddenly had some open space – six of us would travel to Arctic Refuge to visit and document the Neets’aii Gwich’in people in their fight against proposed oil drilling on the northern slope of the Arctic Refuge.
We came from different backgrounds – a pro ski guide, students, journalists – but we all came together around centralized priorities of environmental and social activism. We’d come this far then everything came to a halt. Days before our send-off the United States woke up to brutal reminders that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic was far from over. Hospitals were once again overwhelmed and a substantial number of vaccinated people facing positive test results due to the surging Delta Variant. There was no way we could ethically visit the Arctic Refuge under these circumstances and just like that the trip was canceled.
With a little bit of reconditioning and alterations to the original itinerary, the three of us found ourselves in Fairbanks, Alaska. Lagasse, our trip leader, is a frequent Alaska visitor, and the core of our connection to this sacred place, and Kayla Heidenreich, is a passionate journalist and activist who’s been seriously engaged in this work ever since learning about the Arctic Refuge in Lagasse’s sustainability course. Arriving in Fairbanks we realized we weren’t the only group stuck here. In fact in our company we also had Sarah James, Neets’aii Gwich’in Elder and Arctic Refuge activist. Between our time spent with James and Robert Thompson days worth of stories and conversation were shared, all of which offered us deeper insight into indigenous knowledge of why the Arctic Refuge needs permanent protection and encapsulated the first-hand accounts of the gruesome and horrifying history of the colonization of North America.
Thompson resides in Kaktovik, Alaska; the center of interest for oil extraction in the Refuge. According to the United States Geological Survey, it’s estimated that there are between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of “technically recoverable” oil, meaning the probability of successfully sourcing this oil falls somewhere between 5-95%, a vague estimate for guaranteed destruction of Thompson’s home land, not to mention the economic devastation that could be a result of acquiring this oil.
As an Iñupaq Elder, Thompson has long been a voice for defending his community from oil. As a subsistence hunter for porcupine caribou, and a polar bear guide, he saw the potential threat that oil would immediately pose to the land and wildlife that surrounds him, as well as the long-term dangers that greenhouse gasses have contributed to the accelerating climate crisis. Thompson went on to co-found Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), advocating for sustainable energy and allocation of local renewable energy sources such as the wind turbines Thompson and fellow REDOIL members were able to install in Kaktovik. For the sake of his own livelihood and the quality of life he’s leaving behind for generations to come, Thompson sees no other choice but to put all his efforts into protecting the Arctic Refuge as a defense against the climate crisis and for cultural sustainability.
Further to the south, James was born beside the Yukon river, hunting and trapping the way her ancestors did. As a child, James was removed from her home and her way of life in Arctic Village as part of a process of American assimilation of indigenous peoples. This led her to boarding school in the lower 48 where she was forced to learn English and adopt to colonial ways of life. Through these injustices she was living, James was exposed to other indigenous youth who were taking action against the oppression of their people. Groups like the American Indian Movement (AIM) were gaining momentum and James found her role as an activist which would set the tone as she went on to be a voice for the Arctic Refuge. In 1988 James and along with fellow Gwich’in Elders came together and united all 15 Gwich’in villages for the first time in nearly 150 years, the displacement caused by national and political boundaries had kept them apart for too long and the threat to the Arctic Refuge heeded the call for a united voice in support of protection. Since then, James has been a persistent voice in this fight and seeks to educate the world about why the permanent protection of the Arctic Refuge is a need that reaches far beyond Arctic Village.


Elder Sarah James with SNU professor Brennan Lagasse. (Brayden )

Oil Conflict in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
“The idea is to protect the birth place of all life and to teach the world to see all life as sacred.” – Sarah James
In order to grasp the complexities of the fight for protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge its important to understand a few major events. In 1980 the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation (ANILCA) was enacted by Congress, meaning a majority of the Refuge would be protected under a Wilderness Designation except for 1.5 million acres on the coastal plain, known as section 1002 or to the Neets’aii Gwich’in, “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). Where oil is desired to be extracted is home to over 2,000 species of migratory birds and most notably the northern slope is the calving grounds to the porcupine caribou, the main source of livelihood and subsistence for the Gwich’in.
The 1002 introduces the idea of authorized oil and gas exploration on the coastal plain under the regulations that the extraction does not create too much of a significant impact. Here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as environmentally conscious oil extraction, between infrastructure, drilling, and long-term effects that are detrimental to the land and people. Taking the steps to extract oil would mean decimating a fragile environment that would never be able to rebound. As subsistence hunters, the Gwich’in rely on the porcupine caribou for about 80% of their diet, meaning a threat to the population of the Porcupine Caribou is a threat to the Gwich’in people.
“If they can get into the Refuge they can get in anywhere.”- Robert Thompson
Fast forward to 2017, Donald Trump is president, and for the first time the Arctic Refuge is facing one of its biggest threats as its in the process of being opened up for lease sales. The push for energy independence finally had a loud enough voice to attack and opening up the Arctic Refuge was at the forefront of their priorities. For Trump and the G.O.P. it was nothing more than a symbolic win, a personal vendetta with those who have been desperately trying to save this place for decades. Pro-drilling voices want you to believe that the northern slope of the Arctic Refuge is a barren and desolate landscape but its quite the opposite.


The view from Wickersham Dome Trail in Fairbanks, Alaska. (B)

Steps Towards Protection
“The Biden administration is reviewing the flawed Environmental Impact Statements that were accepted by the Trump administration and after review it’ll be seen that corners were cut and there shouldn’t be lease sales. The next step is to get a full wilderness designation.” – Robert Thompson
On President Joe Biden’s first day of office all lease sales of the 1002 area were halted, a monumental moment that put a major setback in the Trump Administration’s environmental rollbacks, and brought the nation a step closer to permanently protecting the Arctic Refuge. So what does permanent protection mean? Within the parameters of the United States Public Lands system, permanent protection for a place like the Arctic Refuge would require a full Wilderness Designation. If the 1002 were to accompany the rest of the Arctic Refuge in its title of Wilderness there would be no allowance for natural resource extraction or really any room for development of any kind. It’s the highest form of protection land can receive in the United States. In recent history, we’ve been shown what can happen to a place like Bears Ears and Grand Escalante, where there’s a loophole to be taken advantage of there’s corporate big oil knocking down its door. Even a place with National Monument Status is at risk for revaluation in the name of resource extraction. When the Gwich’in came together in Arctic Village, 1988 they discussed the idea of Wilderness and how it applied to protecting the Refuge. James describes Wilderness as “leaving the land as Creator made it,” and to her and those who call this land home that is truly what permanent protection of a natural space looks like.
“The only way to win this battle is to educate the world in a good way,” said James.