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Native Alaskans Tour Utah to Save Sacred Lands and Caribou

Proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could disrupt the Porcupine caribou's migration and calving, advocates say. (Pixabay)
Proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could disrupt the Porcupine caribou's migration and calving, advocates say. (Pixabay)
May 30, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY -- Representatives of a Native American tribe in Alaska are making their way across the Southwest in an effort to raise public awareness about a proposal to open up parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for fossil fuel production.

Members of the Gwich'in nation visited Moab and Salt Lake City over the weekend to screen a short film highlighting their 28-year struggle to protect lands they view as sacred. Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, said she's especially concerned about the impact of drilling on the Porcupine caribou herd, which is central to the Gwich'in way of life and is an important food supply.

"Just like the Native Americans with the buffalo, they have that spiritual and cultural connection, that's that same connection that we have to the Porcupine caribou herd,” Demientieff said. "The Gwich'in Nation used to migrate with the caribou herd for over 20,000 years. What befalls the caribou befalls the Gwich'in."

Proponents of a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate that would open up some 2,000 acres of the refuge for drilling say increasing domestic energy production creates jobs and is important for national security. Conservationists are pushing an alternative measure in the U.S. House that would designate more than 1 million acres of the refuge as wilderness and prohibit oil and gas production.

Anna Vargas, project coordinator with Conejos Clean Water, said limiting development and keeping public lands wild ensures other sustainable economic activities including outdoor recreation and tourism. She said the battle to protect public lands also is a battle to protect cultural heritage.

"That's what the Gwich'in people are trying to do,” Vargas said. "They want their clean air, and their clean water, their land. They want to protect their wildlife for future generations - in perpetuity - so that their children, and their children's children, have that opportunity to live the same life that they did."

Vargas added that if we don't protect our ecosystems - our lands, water, and wildlife - future generations will suffer.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - UT