'We're not giving up' say Gwich'in despite start of ANWR sales

The chair of the Gwich'in Steering Committee says a recent U.S. court decision allowing lease sales in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to begin Wednesday is a disappointment but by no means the end of a long battle.

Advocates look ahead, focus on financial pressure to dissuade drilling in Alaska wildlife refuge

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee in Alaska, says the fight to stop new exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is far from over. (Chad Brown)

The chair of the Gwich'in Steering Committee says a recent court loss is a disappointment but by no means the end of a long battle.

The first bids for resource exploration rights within Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) will be opened Wednesday — a setback for advocates who had hoped the U.S. District court would issue an emergency stop.

Bernadette Demientieff, chair of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, says it's not the final word.

"This is bum news but it's not going to stop us from fighting to protect it," she said on Tuesday.

"This is sacred land to the Gwich'in. This is our way of life, and we're not going to just allow anyone to come in and destroy our way of life, because our children are going to be the ones who have to live with the destruction that they caused."

Gwich'in and Inupiaq people as well as other groups such as the Inuvialuit have depended on the Porcupine caribou herd, which uses the Arctic Refuge as a calving grounds, for thousands of years. The Gwich'in name for the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is "Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit" which translates to "the sacred place where life begins."

Debate over ANWR goes back decades in Alaska as more than 6,000 square kilometres of the refuge's coastal plain are believed to perhaps contain the largest untapped land-based oil reserves in North America.

Court disagrees lease will cause 'imminent' harm

This week's court decision, published on the eve of the sale, says plaintiffs "have not established that they are likely to suffer imminent irreparable harm" from the sale as it will not in itself trigger any immediate on-the-ground exploration.

The decision says that further environmental assessment will be required and that exploratory drilling would require at least two years before starting.

The lawsuit from 13 environmental groups, led by the Gwich'in Steering Committee, was also seeking to block any seismic testing in the wildlife refuge.

That work, involving trucks driving on frozen tundra, can still proceed this winter as the injunction was denied.

The latest court decision does not cover the entire Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as three other court cases are still pending. 

In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine caribou herd on the coastal plain of ANWR. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/The Associated Press)

Some support among Inupiaq

Some development plans for ANWR have been supported by Inupiaq leaders in Kaktovik, a small village within the refuge.

One proposal for seismic exploration mentioned in the court decision was brought forward last September by the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation.

However, support among the Inupiaq is not unanimous and some individual Inupiaq citizens have campaigned against drilling and even formed advocacy groups against development.

Investor interest a 'big unknown'

The unsealing of bids at 10 a.m. Alaskan time Wednesday will reveal a first look at corporate interest for rights to part of the refuge.

It may also reveal interest from other buyers such as the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority which could step forward as a buyer.

This is partly because of guaranteed international public outcry and activism. The effort to stop oil and gas development in ANWR has been a rallying cry not only of the Gwich'in nations and environmental groups but also of high-profile climate and wilderness protection activists such as Greta Thunberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Malkolm Boothroyd has been working on the campaign to protect ANWR for years with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

"It's always been a big unknown to see how much interest there would be in the Arctic refuge, especially given the success in the campaign to get banks to come out and pledge not to fund drilling in the Arctic Refuge," Boothroyd said.

"There are all these warning signs for oil companies."

He maintains the Trump administration has rushed the process to open ANWR for bidding

"The US government is trying to do as much damage as they can in their final weeks in office," he said.

"Either way we're in this for the long haul and [we're] committed to standup for the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and the Porcupine caribou herd."

Meanwhile, Demientieff says she hopes the incoming Biden administration will be more receptive to the concerns of Gwich'in nations and environmentalists. 

"There's a good and honest administration coming in," she said. "We'll find some way to work with them to stop this illegal, fast, rushed and embarrassing process."