Outgoing Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan did not expect to be ending her term talking about suing the White House, but a recent decision to try and open up the Alaskan Arctic Refuge to oil and gas exploration before the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s term has forced the issue.
“I have said previously we will do whatever we can, including considering litigation,” she said. “It’s such a fragile land, that’s why we’ll maintain our position that this needs protection, not to become an industrial zone.
“They’ve been ignoring our Indigenous rights, our culture and our connection to this land.”
On Aug. 17 the U.S. Bureau of Land Management published a record of decision for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing program to open up a portion of the refuge — which the Gwich’in call Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins — to oil and gas drilling.
The refuge is the calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou herd, one of the main food sources for the Gwich’in on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. It also is vital habitat for polar bears and over 200 species of birds. Conservationists, Elders and even the U.S. government’s own reports have cautioned industrial activity in the area could have serious consequences on the already threatened ecosystem.
One week later, an alliance of 13 organizations, including the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the Yukon chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Department of the Interior and its secretary David Bernhardt.
Gwich’in Steering Committee represents the entire Gwich’in nation in the United States.
In seven counts, the lawsuit alleges the defendants failed in their responsibility to examine all possible outcomes, consult with stakeholders or even follow its own rules. Notably, the lawsuit does not ask for any specific compensation beyond legal fees, but asks the court to put aside the record of decision and prohibit the Bureau of Land management from pursuing the matter any further.
The Trump administration now has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit before it can proceed with lease sales.
How important the porcupine caribou are to the Gwich’in were laid bare during the Covid-19 pandemic, noted Greenland Morgan. As the potential for supply lines to dry up became a serious concern in March and April, communities were able to keep themselves fed and healthy by harvesting off the land — particularly caribou.
“Luckily it worked out for us that there was a lot of caribou this winter and spring,” she said. “So a lot of people were able to harvest the caribou and get their freezers full. People were helping to fill freezers of other families that may not have had the means to get out.
“It showed us how quickly things can change.”
Greenland-Morgan said the lawsuit would prevent the U.S. government from selling off the sacred Gwich’in lands until after the Nov. 3 presidential election.
U.S. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has repeatedly stated he is against opening the area up for drilling and would likely stall or prevent lease sales from going forward if elected in November.
The decision has drawn criticism from the Yukon government, with the Environment Minister for the territory joining a protest against the plan to open the refuge on Aug. 28. Canada is a signatory to the International chapter of the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework.
A 2019 declaration states: “We will prioritize cooperation with the United States to ensure the protection and long-term survival of the Porcupine caribou, a species that is vital to Gwich’in culture and livelihood.”
GNWT Environment and Natural resources minister Shane Thompson said the Porcupine Caribou were one of the last healthy migratory herds in the world.
“Our government is deeply concerned about the recent decision of the U.S. administration to open up all Porcupine caribou calving and post-calving lands to oil and gas development,” he stated. “The GNWT remains committed to working with our co-management partners to support the wise management of the Porcupine herd.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called for an investigation into the United States, noting the decision to open the refuge was “conducted without the free, prior and informed consent of and adequate consultation with Gwich’in indigenous peoples, despite the serious harm such extractive activities could allegedly cause.”
Greenland-Morgan said she had a long history defending the refuge and expected she would step up her efforts again after she finishes her term as Grand Chief.
“Worldwide, there are very few places left like that on this planet,” she said. “It’s something that all humans, regardless of culture, race or where we are, I think we all want to take better care of this planet and leave the best we can for our children and future generations.”
On Sept. 9, 15 U.S. States announced they were also suing the Trump administration over its plans to open the refuge up for drilling. The states named as plaintiffs in the separate lawsuit are Washington, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.
While Greenland-Morgan has stepped down from Grand Chief, the incoming Grand Chief Ken Smith said the GTC would continue to stand with their American counterparts.
“The Gwich’in Tribal Council remains committed to protecting the sacred grounds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska,” he said. “We stand united with our allies against the irresponsible Record of Decision issued by the Trump Administration. The Porcupine Caribou are essential to the survival of both our people and our culture. We will not rest until the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou on the sacred Coastal Plain is permanently protected for future generations.”