(CNSNews.com) - Members of North America's Gwich'in Tribe speak eloquently about caribou. They're part of the history, culture and lore of this tribe, which makes its home north of the Arctic Circle.
"We depend on the caribou, as Gwich'in people, for food, clothing, medicine, tools and spirituality. And in return, the caribou depend on us to take care of the land for them so they can continue to be free," said Sandra Newman a council member of the Vuntut Gwich'in (guh-WITCH-in) First Nation.
Newman, and other Gwich'in like her, are opposed to energy development along the icy coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) because they say they fear it will disrupt the calving area for the Porcupine caribou herd, which tries to migrate each spring to that area.
It is known among the Gwich'in as "the sacred place where life begins."
Sarah James, a Gwich'in tribal elder from Arctic Village, Alaska, has also spoken out against energy development along ANWR's coastal plain, which lies roughly 200 miles north of Arctic Village.
James was quoted in the April 5 edition of the Grand Forks (N.D) Herald as saying, "When the caribou come through our land each year, there is a celebration. All of the talk is about the caribou. They are very important to us."
For these reasons, James, Newman and other Gwich'in are opposed to the Bush administration's plans for energy development in ANWR.
But 22 years earlier, the Gwich'in and their tribal cousins not only courted oil and gas corporations, they signed a wide-ranging lease allowing energy development and refining on their own tribal lands, which are adjacent to ANWR.
Anything Goes in the 'Decade of Greed'
Council members of the Venetie (VEEN-uh-tie) Tribal Government agreed in 1980 to open their lands for exploration and development, and, according to lease documents obtained by CNSNews.com, allow everything from drilling and pipelines, to refineries and electrical power stations.
The Venetie Indian Reservation, which is home for the Gwich'in tribe in the U.S., encompasses nearly 1.8 million acres of land. By comparison, the Bush administration wants to develop about 2,000 of ANWR's 19 million acres for gas and oil development.
According to the proposed lease agreement, dated Sept. 4, 1980, the tribe was prepared to bargain away rights to conduct any operations "as may be reasonably necessary, in Lessee's judgment, to explore for, develop produce, store, treat, refine and transport," oil and gas resources.
The lease agreement permitted a variety of activities involved in oil and gas development, and the Venetie were ready to grant rights to engage in "geophysical operations, the drilling of wells, and the construction and use of roads, pipelines, railroads, canals, drilling pads, living quarters, airports... helipads, landing strips, tanks, water wells, disposal wells, injection wells, pits, electric and telephone lines, power stations and other facilities," to ensure successful operations.
Additional tribal documents show that leaders from the Venetie Reservation issued a 'Request for Proposals for Oil and Gas Lease' on April 2, 1984, again offering land for competitive energy leasing.
"This request for proposals involves any or all lands and waters of the Venetie Indian Reservation," reads the request, which notes that any part of the tribe's 1,799,927.64 acres of land could be available for development.
Although the Venetie were prepared to allow roads, pipelines and power lines to criss-cross their land and connect oil wells and refineries, "I'm sure it might have caused a problem for the caribou," said Newman, who represents the Gwich'in Tribe in Old Crow, Canada and is in Washington, D.C. to argue against development of ANWR. "That's one thing we're trying to not let happen in the future."
No Oil for the Venetie
Bob Childer, a private consultant for an Anchorage, Alaska-based environmental law firm and opponent of the Bush administration's plan, called the 1980 agreement "a standard tribal lease," and admitted it "is pretty wide ranging."
According to Childer, who was formerly involved with the Gwich'in Steering Committee, some pro-energy advocates have "tried to paint us as hypocritical," in taking note of the 22-year old agreement.
"While the lease covers the whole reserve, anyone that had any interest was the southern section," of the Venetie Reservation, an area known at the Yukon Flats, Childer said.
Childer said the area of the reservation that was explored two decades ago came up with nothing worth developing and he called the area "low value caribou habitat," saying there's no record of caribou migration in that region.
As for why the Gwich'in and their Venetie brethren invited oil and gas exploration in their own backyard in the 1980s but oppose it today when it's hundreds of miles from their home, Newman said many of her people were living in "almost Third World housing," 22 years ago.
Newman, who spent 13 years living in Arctic Village and Fairbanks, said many Gwich'in lived without indoor plumbing or toilets two decades ago. "I just think that at one time, people got tired of living in that lifestyle," said Newman.
Federally chartered tribal governments and corporations, like the Venetie who signed the 1980 oil and gas lease and invited further exploration in 1984, have considerable latitude in forging agreements with oil and gas companies, and Newman said "their goal is to make as much money as they can for their people."
According to Newman, the tribal corporation system "is fueled by oil investment money and money making strategies."
While the Gwich'in and the Venetie Reservation didn't reap the benefits of oil on their own land 20 years ago, there's little question that the part of ANWR the Bush administration has earmarked for energy development will yield what the Gwich'in land hundreds of miles to the south did not.
Global Warming and the Nature of Caribou
Newman and Childer said their opposition to ANWR development is not about money or oil, but about the Porcupine caribou herd and whether developing Area 1002, the part of the coastal plain under consideration, would harm the herd by disrupting the place to which it migrates so pregnant caribou can give birth.
But over the past few years, cold weather, late winters and heavy snows have prevented many caribou from reaching the coastal plain, forcing the cows to calve elsewhere.
"We have global warming and we have five or six feet of snow a year," said Newman. "The global warming has caused more snow to fall and that makes it harder to get to the coastal plain."
Newman blamed energy companies for the global warming she said has resulted in heavy snowfall and colder winters. "There's a hole in our ozone and the snow is deeper," Newman said.
According to Childer, the region through which the Porcupine caribou migrate has experienced colder weather and later springs in two of the past three years. Temperatures "stayed cold into late April and early May," Childer said, producing a negative impact on the herd.
"It's pretty hard to tell where an individual animal is going to go," said Childer. "But every one of those animals is returning to the coastal plain to have their young." And that, Childer said, is the problem with energy development in Area 1002.
Childer cited research showing caribou bulls, barren cows and yearlings in other parts of Alaska show little aversion to the infrastructure of oil and gas development - such as pipelines and roads. But pregnant caribou and those with young showed a low tolerance for such structures.
The fear is that low tolerance to such structures by pregnant cows would force the entire Porcupine caribou herd, which numbers about 130,000 animals, to migrate elsewhere and lead to calving in less desirable places that would expose the caribou to more predators, less foliage and "insect harassment."
When asked if caribou are incapable of adaptation within ANWR's 19 million acres, Childer replied "That's correct."
'Sour Grapes' in the Frozen North?
Newman, James, Childer and others say they want to keep ANWR's coastal plain off limits for energy development, claiming it's a matter of preserving the 'sacred place where life begins' for the Porcupine caribou herd. But others are not convinced.
"There does seem to be a little bit of sour grapes," said Ken Boyd, Alaska's former director of oil and gas between 1995 and 2001.
Boyd, who now works as an oil and gas consultant in Eagle River, Alaska, said the issue of caribou and their survival in the face of energy development appears moot.
According to Boyd, the animals are so numerous a few miles west of ANWR, "they have to get the caribou off the runway so you can land," at the airport in Deadhorse, Alaska, which is outside the oil hub of Prudhoe Bay.
"It seems to be a bit disingenuous," said Boyd of the Gwich'in arguments against developing the coastal plain of ANWR after earlier research on their own tribal lands turned up dry wells. "It's like (they're) saying 'we can't have development, so neither can you."
Indian tribes that make their home near Kaktovik, Alaska, which is adjacent to the sliver of ANWR being eyed for development by the Bush administration, are generally in favor of oil and gas exploration, primarily because of the anticipated job creation and economic boost associated with the venture.
Kim Duke, executive director of Arctic Power, a pro-ANWR development organization in Fairbanks, Alaska, is also skeptical of the caribou arguments and wonders whether the location of Alaska's natural resources isn't a factor.
"I think it would have been a different story if they had found oil and gas in the Venetie area," 20 years ago, said Duke.
On the question of whether Gwich'in opponents of ANWR development are duplicitous in their current arguments after having courted oil and gas corporations in the past, Duke said, "I can't help but think that they are."
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