Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: A sacred land that should be left untouched

  • A herd of musk ox graze in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2015. AP Photo/Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Published: 9/20/2019 2:36:08 PM
Modified: 9/20/2019 2:35:54 PM

While serving as president, George W. Bush was eager to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) — a pristine stretch of land on Alaska’s North Coast that is sacred to the Gwich’in people of Alaska.

Saying ANWR harbored as much as 11 billion barrels of oil, Bush pressed Congress to lift environmental restrictions on drilling in the wildlife refuge. In 2001, to bring attention to President Bush’s plans to drill in ANWR, Religious Witness for the Earth — which I co-chaired with Rev. Fred Small and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb — gathered nearly two dozen people of faith in Washington, D.C. to protest in front of the Department of Energy (DOE), the government agency responsible for translating the president’s wishes into concrete plans.

As people of faith, our intent was to denounce Bush’s plans as an assault on holy land, a crime against nature and an unacceptable threat to the living creatures residing in the wildlife refuge.

On May 3, 2001, 22 individuals — half of us in clerical robes — took our places standing or kneeling in front of the entrance to the DOE, preventing employees from entering the building. We held our ground, sang and prayed. The police moved in fairly quickly, which was expected; what was not expected was the sudden appearance of sharp-shooters on the roofs of buildings surrounding the DOE. Despite our fears, we shut down the DOE for 34 minutes before being hand-cuffed and led away, one-by-one, to waiting police vans.

Religious Witness for the Earth was one of many environmental organizations that mounted energetic, conspicuous and highly dramatic actions to protest proposed drilling in ANWR. Activists demonstrated with voices and fists raised to stop the drilling. Pressured by ordinary people from coast to coast, Congress voted again and again to block drilling in the Arctic refuge. We prevailed.

Temporarily.

In 2017, with President Trump in office, the tide turned. With Republicans in control of the White House, the Senate, and the House, Congress included a section in a tax bill establishing a plan to sell leases in the ANWR’s coastal plain, billing it as a revenue generator for the federal treasury.

Trump boasted that he had accomplished what no other Republican president since Ronald Reagan had been able to do. “Reagan tried to get it. Bush tried to get it. Everybody tried to get it. They couldn’t get it passed,” Trump said when discussing the bill. “I will tell you,” he declared, speaking truthfully for once in his life, “ANWR is a big, big deal.”

Now the Trump administration is moving forward with its plan to open a stretch of ANWR — a coastal area with substantial environmental significance — to oil and gas development following the release of a final report on the environmental impact of the plan (by a Trump-controlled federal agency).

As indicated in an article in The New York Times on Sept. 13, 2019, the Interior Department is “on track” to auction leases for the right to drill in the coastal plain of ANWR before the end of the year. As the Times article further notes, “Having drilling rights in the hands of oil companies would make it more difficult to stop development in the refuge should Democrats take either the White House or Senate and keep control of the House in the 2020 elections.”

Now is the time to for us to act — to raise our voices again and protest the drilling in ANWR. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest remaining expanse of unspoiled land in the United States — an area the size of South Carolina that is home to caribou, polar bears, migrating birds and other wildlife.

In 2001, before our group of people of faith knelt and prayed in front of the doors of the Department of Energy and temporarily blocked pedestrian access to the building, we stood in a circle and said prayers for strength and clarity. At that moment, as we prepared for our act of civil disobedience, we received a blessing from Inuit Chief Jonathon Solomon of the Gwich’in people of Alaska.

I am unable to recall the exact words Chief Solomon shared. What I remember is his solemnity: the sorrow, the quiet voice and the deep concern for the Gwich’in people, the caribou, the birds, the polar bears and the untouched beauty and serenity found only in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What I remember is Chief Solomon being on the verge of tears as he spoke, and I recall my appreciation, in a new way, of the sacredness of this extraordinary stretch of Alaskan wilderness.

We must stop the dangerous plan to drill in ANWR. This will require challenging the Trump administration and the misguided coalition of oil companies, developers and elected officials who value profits more than people and pristine wilderness areas. We must say that the sale of drilling leases in ANWR is immoral, a crime against the planet and steals the future from the Gwich’in people and the wildlife whose habitat they share. It is time to write, call, march, rally, protest, and maybe even visit the DOE again to kneel in prayer.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sacred land that should be left untouched. Now is the time to be creative and diligent in finding new ways to move forward to protect and preserve this holy ground.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, of Northampton, is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership, which offers free movement-building classes from Greenfield to Springfield.


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