Photo by Photo Submitted
Photo by Photo Submitted
ANCHORAGE – Environmental groups – including one with a Yukon chapter – wasted no time challenging the Trump administration’s attempt to allow oil and gas drilling in an Alaska refuge where polar bears and caribou roam.
Two lawsuits were filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.
They seek to block the Interior Department’s plan to allow oil and gas lease sales on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – a 1.56-million-acre strip of land along Alaska’s northern Beaufort Sea coast, or about eight per cent of the 19.3 million-acre refuge.
In one lawsuit, the National Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defence Council and Friends of the Earth sued David Bernhardt, the Interior Department secretary who approved the oil and gas lease sales last week.
“Birds can’t vote, and they can’t file a lawsuit – but we can. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment to defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and protect America’s bird nursery from drilling,’’ David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, said in a statement.
The lawsuit asserts that Bernhardt didn’t have permission to authorize a broad oil and gas leasing program because it violates government statutes managing the plain. It also claims the program violates the Endangered Species Act and other environmental policies.
In the other lawsuit, the Gwich’in Steering Committee – an Indigenous group formed to protect the refuge – and 12 other groups allege that Bernhardt and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management violated several laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act.
Nearly 200,000 animals in the Porcupine caribou herd, which are also known as reindeer, travel freely between Alaska and Canada and use the coastal plain as calving grounds.
The Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS Yukon) is the only Canadian organization to participate in this litigation.
“The Arctic Refuge is the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd,” Chris Rider, the executive director of CPAWS Yukon, said Monday.
“Each year, they migrate from Alaska to their wintering grounds in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. They are a keystone species for the Yukon’s delicate wilderness.
“As one of the last healthy barren-ground herds, any development that threatens their health is a risk to the viability of the entire species,” Rider added.
“We are joining this lawsuit because we believe it is important to have Canada’s interest in the health of the Porcupine caribou herd represented before the courts.”
The land agency’s “decision to violate lands sacred to my people and essential to the health of the Porcupine caribou herd is an attack on our rights, our culture and our way of life,’’ Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a statement.
Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin said the “congressionally mandated energy development program’’ leaves 92 per cent per cent of the refuge off-limits to development.
“The department’s decision regarding where and when development can take place includes extensive protections for wildlife, including caribou and polar bears,’’ he said in a statement.
The Bureau of Land Management in December 2018 concluded that drilling could be conducted within the coastal plain without harming wildlife.
U.S. President Donald Trump insisted Congress include a mandate providing for leasing in the refuge in a 2017 tax bill.
“We have lived and thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years,” Demientieff added.
“We have listened and learned from our elders, and we know we must stand united to protect future generations, and that means going to court to protect the caribou herd and sacred lands.”
BLM released its Record of Decision on Aug. 17, allowing the leasing of the entire biologically rich coastal plain.
The lawsuit charges BLM with failing to comply with laws governing agency processes and protecting land, water and wildlife.
“BLM rushed its analysis, curtailed public participation, shortchanged Indigenous input and concerns, and omitted science and facts,” said Brook Brisson, senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska.
“The decision-making process has been fundamentally flawed from day one. It’s no surprise that the outcome is a leasing program that flagrantly breaks the law and fails to respect and protect human rights, the public trust, and one of our nation’s most iconic public lands.”
The administration has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit. The agencies will likely begin the process for holding a lease sale soon.
“This process has been deeply flawed from the beginning, with the Department of the Interior cutting every possible corner in its rush to sell off the coastal plain to the highest bidders,” said Karlin Itchoak, Alaska director for The Wilderness Society.
“Fortunately, the courts stand in the way of this reckless endeavour, and we will pursue every opportunity to defend the wildlife and natural wonder of the coastal plain, and the rights of Indigenous people who depend on this landscape and the Porcupine caribou herd that calves there.”
“Alaskans will not tolerate this administration selling off sacred places,” said Elisabeth Balster Dabney, executive director for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.
“We have a long history of protecting the places we care about, and remain committed to stopping the destruction of these irreplaceable lands and waters. We value them just the way they are: as a Refuge. The coastal plain is not for sale.”
“This proposed desecration of the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is an outrageous assault on its incomparable wildlife and habitat, the traditional lifestyle and culture of the Gwich’in Nation, and the overwhelming desire of the American people to preserve this intact ecosystem for future generations,” said Dr. David Raskin, president of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges.
“This misguided effort to line the pockets of the oil industry for political gain will be defeated by the legitimate stakeholders, just as it has been many times since the refuge was established by ANILCA in 1980.
“We will not allow the rights of the public to be trampled by this flawed process that flies in the face of the many laws and regulations that are designed to enhance and preserve our national heritage.”
“The scheme to drill this national treasure has always been morally wrong, but the process the Trump administration is utilizing to get development steamrolling ahead is flat out illegal,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League.
“Science has been trampled. The voices of the Gwich’in shunned. Environmental laws and even the bare bones requirements of the Tax Act have been ignored. This is a ruse masquerading as an environmental review and we will not stand idly by while Trump’s Interior Department seeks to auction off the wildest place left in America to the highest bidder.”
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
AND STAR STAFF
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