Matthew Rexford

GUEST COMMENTARY: Our village is not a national monument

In March, the Alaska House of Representatives passed a resolution pushing back on President Joe Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. Alaska House Joint Resolution 12 urges the president to uphold the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that approved ANWR leasing and begin permitting lease holders. The resolution also opposes designation of the refuge as a national monument, a unilateral move the president is considering that would require no congressional approval and would end any possibility of ANWR development, at least for the next four years. HJR 12 has been met with bipartisan support, passing the House 35-3, and is described as a united effort by Alaskans to defend their state’s energy rights against a hostile federal administration. While that may be the intent of the resolution, it represents something far bigger for those of us living inside the refuge: human rights. My village of Kaktovik is the only community in ANWR and is on the coastal plain, where drilling would occur. Naturally, the Kaktovik Iñupiat stand to be affected the most by drilling decisions in our backyard, including on our land. Despite being the primary stakeholders and with the future of our community hanging in the balance, no one seems interested in what we think about oil development in ANWR. No human rights groups are lining up to defend our sovereignty over the land. The truth is, the vast majority of Americans — or even Alaskans, for that matter — may not even know we exist. That’s not a mistake or coincidence. For the past 40 years, the ANWR debate has been largely framed by lawmakers and environmental groups and has centered around the caribou, polar bears, tundra and birds. But what about the people — my people? Aren’t we worth preserving? Don’t we get a say in whether oil can be developed on our land so we can have an economy? Through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp., or KIC, was awarded 92,000 acres in the coastal plain of ANWR, known as the 1002 Area. KIC, the Native village corporation for the community, is the only private land owner in the 19 million acre refuge. This is an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth for the federal government and others who oppose ANWR development, so they pretend we don’t exist. It’s easier to justify locking up the refuge when no one acknowledges that people live here, own land and support responsible development here. The preservation-at-all-cost mentality doesn’t come from residents inside the refuge or even the North Slope. In Alaska, that rhetoric comes primarily from the Gwich’in Steering Committee 400 miles away in Fairbanks, a group that has lobbied relentlessly to keep the refuge closed to development. It comes from countless Lower 48 environmental groups who use our land to raise money from wealthy donors. And, of course, it comes from Washington lawmakers who care more about their legacies and reelection campaigns than the health and future of my Iñupiat people. HJR 12 is a worthwhile resolution that comes at a time when critical decisions on ANWR are being made that will have lasting effects on our state, the Arctic Slope and my community. I applaud the Alaska Legislature for holding the Biden administration accountable by asking it to uphold the law as written; defend the 2020 Record of Decision approving the ANWR leasing program; proceed with oil and gas permitting; and not designate the refuge as a national monument. I also thank our Alaska lawmakers for recognizing Kaktovik as the only Alaska Native community in ANWR; acknowledging KIC’s ownership of private land within the refuge; and asserting the corporation’s sovereign right to direct control, rather than the federal government, over development of its land and resources. Despite the picture often painted by politicians and outside special interests, ANWR is not a desolate wilderness. It never has been. The Kaktovik Iñupiat have lived here for thousands of years, and we refuse to allow our land to be managed by the federal government and unaccountable agencies that are either indifferent, or downright hostile, to the interests of local communities they are supposed to serve. Our village is not a shiny monument for outsiders to gawk at; it is our home. I praise HJR 12 for many reasons, but the most important is its support for the basic human rights we have been promised but denied for so many decades. We support the ANWR leasing program, and have the right to manage our land and resources for the benefit of our people. Matthew Rexford is the tribal administrator for the Village of Kaktovik.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Time to say ‘yes’ to ANWR drilling

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest wildlife refuge in America. Spanning more than 19 million acres, it’s an area larger than 10 U.S. states. This vast expanse is home to caribou, fox, bears, and dozens of other species. Much of that land is also home to the Native Iñupiat, and our people have utilized the resources it has blessed us with for more than 10,000 years. One type of those natural resources lies beneath this great land — oil and gas — and lots of it. The debate over opening ANWR to drilling gained headway nationally in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter set aside less than 8 percent of the refuge for potential oil and gas development. This section of ANWR became known as the 1002 area, after a section of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Since then, Alaskans and the oil and gas industry have fought unsuccessfully to open the 1002 area to drilling, which literally requires an act of Congress. At the same time, Lower 48 lawmakers, special interest groups across the country, folks and organizations around the world have waged war on the idea citing the disruption of wildlife and the pristine Arctic environment. As ANWR debates occur, the views of the Iñupiat who call the area home are often times left out. The wishes of the people who live in and around the refuge’s coastal plain are frequently drowned out by people who live hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Many of whom have never bothered to set foot anywhere near the Arctic. Well, today is a new day. Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, an organization with 21 members from across the Arctic Slope region — including members from Kaktovik located inside ANWR — have voted unanimously to pass a resolution supporting oil and gas development in the 1002 area. This is an unprecedented show of unity from the community leaders of the North Slope, those who live in and around the coastal plain of the Refuge, and should send a very clear message to America: we support the development of a portion of the coastal plain of ANWR. My fellow Iñupiat and I firmly believe in a social license to operate, and perhaps no other potential project in the history of America has called for such a blessing from local indigenous peoples more than this one. When oil was first discovered on our land in 1969, the Iñupiat were worried of industry activities and fought hard for self-determination in order to protect our subsistence resources. So, we fully understand the trepidation from outsiders; the fear that the presence of industry on the coastal plains of ANWR could disrupt wildlife and affect America’s manufactured perspective of our land and culture. However, we also have the benefit of decades of experience working with the oil and gas industry to implement stringent regulations to protect our lands, and the industry has consistently lived up to our standards. Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field on the continent located 60 miles to the west of the coastal plain of ANWR, has demonstrated for four decades that resource development and ecological preservation can and do coexist in the Arctic. The 1002 area of ANWR resides in our backyard and is entirely within our homeland, which gives the Iñupiat a unique perspective in the debate to allow drilling there. The oil and gas industry supports our communities by providing jobs, business opportunities and infrastructure investments; and has built our schools, hospitals and provided other basic services most Americans may take for granted. Our region recognizes its importance to our local and state economy, and we believe that development can be done responsibly in a portion of the 1002 area. We are not alone. Over the past 35 years, the Alaska State Legislature has consistently passed resolution after resolution supporting the opening of ANWR to drilling. During that same time period, each Alaska congressional delegate and every single Alaska governor has supported responsible development of the 1002 area. More recently, in January, Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced Senate Bill 49 — the Alaska Oil and Gas Production Act — which would allow development of 2,000 surface acres in the refuge’s coastal plain. This proposed legislation served as the catalyst for the Iñupiat people coming together to make an informed, united decision on whether or not to support drilling in ANWR. As Iñupiat, we stand to be unarguably the most affected by oil and gas activity in the Arctic. Therefore, we have the greatest stake in seeing that any and all development is done in a manner that keeps our land and subsistence resources safe. We know it can be done, because it’s already being done. Now is the time to open ANWR to drilling. Matthew Rexford is the president of Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp.
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