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Oil lease suspension in Alaska refuge 'wonderful news' but fight continues, say Gwich'in leaders

Gwich'in leaders are calling the suspension of oil leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) good news — but say they're still fighting for permanent protection of the area.

Biden administration on Tuesday suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

'Our work will not stop until our lands are permanently protected through legislation,' said Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Gwich'in leaders are calling the suspension of oil leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) good news — but say they're still fighting for permanent protection of the area.

The Biden administration on Tuesday suspended oil and gas leases in ANWR, reversing a drilling program approved by the Trump administration. The move follows a temporary moratorium on lease activities imposed by President Joe Biden on his first day in office.

"I think this is absolutely wonderful news," said Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm on Wednesday.

"It's great for the short term, for the protection of these lands, but it actually goes a long way as a microcosm for this administration and playing out for climate change, and even really just saving the planet at this point. It's a large move."

Indigenous and environmental groups in Canada and the U.S. have long fought against oil and gas drilling in ANWR. The refuge is home to polar bears, migratory birds and other species, and it includes the breeding grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.

Caribou from the Porcupine herd migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via The Associated Press)

A review by the U.S. Interior Department after Biden's Jan. 20 executive order "identified defects in the underlying record of decision supporting the leases, including the lack of analysis of a reasonable range of alternatives" required under the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law in the U.S.

Tizya-Tramm says further analysis "will find that we were not adequately engaged and the process was really unlawful."

Fight not over, says Gwich'in Steering Committee

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee in Alaska, also praised Tuesday's suspension of leases.

"I'm very grateful that we have an administration that is showing true leadership when it comes to our lands, and not just to Indigenous people in Alaska, but to the Indigenous people around the country," she said.

Still, Demientieff said the fight is not over — she wants permanent protections for the area, and will continue to lobby U.S. lawmakers to make it happen.

"We will be holding everyone accountable to their promises, and we will remind them of the promises that they made to protect our sacred land," she said.

'We will be holding everyone accountable to their promises,' said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee in Alaska. (Chad Brown)

Some environmental groups are also calling for a permanent cancellation of the leases and repeal of the 2017 law mandating drilling in the refuge's coastal plain.

Tizya-Tramm agrees that the issue is not yet settled. Alaska's economy relies on development, he says.

"Our work will not stop until our lands are permanently protected through legislation. And this is something our people have been working towards since 1988," he said.

"We're not about to stop any time soon."

With files from Elyn Jones, Lawrence Nayally and the Associated Press

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