Alaska Natives Accuse Feds of Using Pandemic to Silence Public

Few Alaska Natives in the Arctic Circle have reliable cellphone service, let alone internet access. And many say the Trump administration is using that — and the Covid-19 pandemic — to keep them from voicing their disapproval of mining and drilling projects that will destroy their way of life.

The Porcupine caribou herd crosses a river on the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge and a calving and nursing grounds for the herd of 200,000. In 2017, The Trump administration opened it to industrial oil and gas development. Caribou biologists and Gwich’in elders believe the potential development threatens the health of the herd, as well as the culture and subsistence lifestyle of the Gwich’in caribou people. (Photo by Peter Mather)

(CN) — For indigenous Alaskans, traditional methods of subsistence hunting are more important now than in decades. But the Trump administration hasn’t slowed its relentless pursuit of massive extraction projects there. Instead, it switched to online-only public comment periods that locals say shut them out of decisions that could alter their way of life.

John Horner Sr., a former member of the Kobuk Traditional Council, lives just above the Arctic Circle, in a village where his grandfather met his grandmother after following the Western Arctic caribou herd on foot for hundreds of miles. Beyond Horner’s front yard lies the Kobuk River, and out back are the foothills of the 700-mile-long Brooks Range. It’s a place where soup made from caribou bone marrow is a relished staple and harvesting buckets of blueberries is a standard seasonal chore.

Twice a year, Horner counts on hunting caribou as they pass on the migratory path they have followed for centuries. He stocks his freezer and distributes meat to those who need it — a growing number during the pandemic. But every season, Horner and traditional hunters like him allow the first returning caribou to pass unharmed. It’s a principle of resource management that has been practiced as long as anyone remembers — a way to encourage predictability in the animals’ migration routes. And it’s something tribal elders have been trying to communicate to government scientists for decades.

 “When the caribou first come through, those first ones — we have to let them pass by,” Horner said in a phone interview. “Because they leave a scented trail for the rest to follow. If those first ones are deflected a different way, they’re all going to follow. This has been passed down through generations of my people.”

Horner worries the Ambler Road Access Project — proposed to open a remote region of Alaska to copper mines — could change all that. A 220-mile wall of gravel planned to be 20 feet tall in some places, Ambler Road would slice through the core of the migratory route for the world’s largest caribou herd, which roams today as the buffalo once did. There’s evidence that it could divide the herd and make it veer off in unusual directions.

A selfie by John Horner Jr., after a successful caribou hunt on Old Man Mountain, south of Kobuk, Alaska. (Photo courtesy John Horner Jr.)

In northwest Alaskan villages like Nuiqsut, Kobuk and Anaktuvuk Pass, hunting, fishing and gathering berries is not optional or quaint. It is not a sport. It is the standard way of putting food on the table. That’s not only adherence to tradition. Food in the grocery stores of the North Slope has to be flown in, and it’s priced accordingly. A bag of chips can run $15, while a dozen frozen hamburgers is $30.

“In a very real way, any impact on subsistence is really taking away food security for people to be able to provide for their families,” Siqiniq Maupin, a community organizer whose family is from Nuiqsut said in an interview. “That’s what people don’t understand. We don’t want a nice hiking trail. Subsistence can seem romanticized but for us it’s life and death.”

Reliance on subsistence is even more important during the Covid-19 pandemic, which put the area’s main source of bulk transportation out of business. Ravn Airlines used to bring in staples like rice, coffee and pancake mix. The company has filed for bankruptcy.

Indigenous Alaskans are scrambling for necessities amid the specter of stories handed down about 1918 flu pandemic, which wiped out entire villages in the region.

“Right now, the North Slope is freaking out about getting diapers and baby formula and they don’t care about these projects,” Maupin said. “There’s no internet access. There’s a pandemic. People are scared for their lives.”

Under these conditions, the Trump administration is relentlessly pursuing major extraction projects. Three in Alaska’s remote north would endanger the region’s caribou herds — which dozens of villages rely on as a staple food. Over a quarter million caribou range through the area’s valleys and wetlands. The developments would sever migratory paths to caribou calving areas and threaten the delicate wild areas where they give birth to their calves with the despoliation that oil, gas and mining projects bring.

Ambler Road would cross 290 streams and 11 major rivers to open Alaska’s northwest interior to copper mines. The Interior Department’s record of decision on opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling is imminent. And the Willow Master Development Plan would install a major new oilfield, threatening Alaska’s largest arctic lake.

On the icy edge of the Arctic Sea, Conoco Phillips wants to build five oil drilling sites, a processing facility, two airstrips, two gravel mines, 337 miles of pipeline and hundreds of miles of new roads. The Willow project would be adjacent to Teshekpuk Lake. The world’s largest thermokarst lake, Teshekpuk stores heat and carbon in expanses of alternating marsh and permafrost. The lake is surrounded by vast wetlands that comprise one of the Arctic’s most ecologically important habitats — home to polar bear dens, hundreds of thousands of migrating birds and the Teshekpuk caribou herd, upon which half a dozen villages depend.

Porcupine caribou, from the 200,000 strong herd, migrating through the mountains of the Arctic Refuge. The caribou also use snow patches to escape hordes of mosquitoes that plague the North. (Photo by Peter Mather)

The village closest to the site, Nuiqsut, is already surrounded on three sides by development that has reduced caribou migration nearby, according to Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a retired physician’s assistant and Nuiqsut City Council member.

“Industry has been allowed to develop at will to the east, the north and the west of Nuiqsut,” Ahtuangaruak said. “We want to prevent that same development to the south. Without insuring those migrations are coming from the south, we are risking no caribou at all.”

Ahtuangaruak said the proposed oilfield is a threat to her community’s survival.

“We need to eat food from the land,” Ahtuangaruak said. “That’s what we do every day. Protect our land to be able to feed our families as our elders have done.”

Few in the area have access to a computer, let alone the internet. Flip phones are common. People used to access the internet at the library or gathered around the computer in the home of the one person with a good connection. That’s all impossible now. Regardless, the government has moved the public process for such projects online. Now, Zoom meetings are now the only way to comment on or protest Willow, which locals say would threaten the caribou and whales they eat.

“You can barely load Facebook,” Maupin said. “I’m not sure how someone would livestream Zoom.”

A coalition of environmental advocacy groups called for a halt to the BLM’s virtual meetings held in April to allow the public to comment on Willow. But the meetings continued. And they were rife with technical problems.

During public testimony, the BLM muted one Nuiqsut resident as he spoke, later explaining that the man had used the word “bullshit.” Other participants were not able to access the calls, lost access during proceedings and say they had their comments and questions go unanswered.

“There are so many people — elders — who want to participate but can’t because they don’t have the technology,” Nuiqsut resident Martha Itta said at the BLM’s April 23 hearing. “I want the world to understand that.”

Community organizers called the process a sham, saying in a statement condemning the meetings that the BLM “has used this global health crisis to further enact systemic racism and inequities in the decisions around Alaska’s lands, waters and people.”

Racheal Jones, BLM manager in charge of developing the final environmental impact statement for the Willow project, told Courthouse News the problems were caused by participants having an outdated version of Zoom. Of the man muted while giving his testimony, Jones said he would get another chance to testify.

“This is a platform where we want people to not use that type of language,” Jones said. “There is an audience listening.”

She added that the government planned to independently contact people who participated in the Zoom hearings and invite them to leave testimony electronically, through physical mail or in a voicemail box.

“All that will be considered and responded to, if they are truly substantive, in the FEIS,” Jones said.

Other questions surround the government’s actions in pushing to build Ambler Road. On March 27, the Army Corps of Engineers released its final environmental impact statement advancing the project.  That same day, the Alaska Industrial Development and Expert Authority (AIDEA) held an emergency board meeting to discuss loans for businesses impacted by the pandemic. A public corporation founded by the Alaska Legislature, AIDEA’s mission is to promote jobs and economic growth.

At an emergency meeting announced with three days notice, AIDEA made an unusual move: it transferred $32 million in taxpayer money out of its revolving fund into an account earmarked for development of Ambler Road. It was a move Bridget Psarianos, a lawyer with Trustees for Alaska, says was likely illegal because only the Legislature can appropriate money for specific projects.

“Already because of the pandemic, you have one in six Anchorage restaurants saying they’ll have to close permanently,” Psarianos said in an interview. “And here you have AIDEA taking $35 million for this zombie project instead of bailing out small business owners across our state. We have serious questions about whether this was legal under Alaska’s constitution.”

Karsten Rodvik, AIDEA’s external affairs officer, said the move was authorized by state law and necessary to fund work for the project set to begin this summer.

“AIDEA is committed to working with all stakeholders to move this project forward in a responsible manner, to utilize the state’s extensive mineral resource potential to provide much-needed long-term economic growth and development, and to create job opportunities.”

(Map Courtesy Audubon Alaska)

As for the caribou, Rodvik pointed to the BLM’s environmental impact statement, which said only a miniscule amount of the herd’s habitat would be lost. Rodvik added that the project would be operated under rules similar to another wilderness road built to access the Red Dog Mine in northwest Alaska, which she said “successfully” used “strict protocols” requiring traffic to stop when caribou are seen near the road.

But a 2016 study by Jim Dau, a caribou biologist who has since retired from Alaska Department of Fish & Game, found that the road built for the Red Dog Mine diverted and delayed the herd’s fall migration. Some caribou were so leery of crossing the road that they ended up wintering in entirely different areas, away from the main group.

Before the pandemic, Maupin says indigenous opposition to these projects was gaining momentum, with turnout in the hundreds at some BLM hearings. At one, over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the groups managed to halt a new government practice that is becoming increasingly familiar: forcing people at public hearings to testify in private, with only a government stenographer to hear their words.

“We’d never seen that before,” Maupin said. “You have elders coming up and pouring their hearts out. They didn’t like that we were gathering that people power.”

The groups interrupted the meeting and the BLM relented, bringing their stenographer out front and allowing people to deliver their testimony in public.

Maupin said that’s the kind of impact squelched by online-only testimony.

“When we have those tools we truly can change the entire outcome,” Maupin said. “But if we don’t have people power in a system already rigged to benefit corporations, we are missing a vital tool. Without that, who is going to speak for the animals that feed us? For the lands that sustain us and the waters that give us life? We are one of the last tools put in place to protect the only planet we have.”

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