Herds of more than a half-million caribou — and other abundant wildlife — live in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. (Credit: BLM)

Caribou Country

Northern Alaska is more than an oil reserve

Picture a vast Alaskan wetland teeming with wildlife, where abundant grizzly bears, wolverines and wolves feast on herds of a half-million caribou. Teshekpuk Lake and the headlands of the Colville River support millions of migratory birds. Bowhead and beluga whales migrate offshore in the Arctic Ocean, while polar bears, ice seals and walruses alternate between land and sea.

These are the scenes of Alaska’s vast unspoiled wilderness, peopled only by a few indigenous tribes practicing their traditional subsistence hunting and gathering. In fact, at almost 37,000 square miles, this is largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States. Yet it’s an area that bears a strangely incongruous name: National Petroleum Reserve Alaska.

As a Native Alaskan who has always lived off the bounty of the land, I think it’s time to rethink old decisions to sacrifice this vibrant wilderness to our oil addiction. The realities of climate change are all too real for my brothers and sisters in the Arctic, who are being displaced by sea-level rise and are trying to cope with shifting wildlife patterns. Moreover, the current mass extinction crisis — which threatens polar bears, bearded seals and other endangered species in this rapidly warming region — should force us to revisit the flawed assumptions of our past. And climate scientists say we must leave untapped reserves in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change scenarios.

The reserve is in danger more than ever, and leases on the site are still being auctioned off to the fossil fuel industry, with the next sale scheduled for Dec. 14.

The Bureau of Land Management admits this lease sale will have significant unavoidable impacts on the ecological health of the area and the subsistence of native people who have treaty and land rights to the region, which officials are hastily trying to mitigate before the sale. But whatever they come up with, it won’t be enough.

That’s why I‘ll be rallying against this project in Anchorage on Dec. 14 along with other Alaskans and conservation allies. We’re standing with people around the world to say: Keep it in the ground.

As the world waits to see whether the incoming Trump administration will make good on its threats to greatly expand domestic oil production and renege on our country’s promises to address climate change, we’re asking the Obama administration to cancel this and other fossil fuel sales on public lands.

Eiders on a lake in Northern Alaska, an important habitat for migratory birds. (Credit: BLM)

Respecting the people and wildlife of this important region requires that we do not exploit it for fossil fuels that will destroy habitat with roads and pipelines and deepen our climate crisis — instead we need to keep it wild, thriving and sustainable for the communities in the Far North.