Natives Lobby Obama Administration On Subsistence Rights

In August, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the department’s intent to keep half of the NPR-A off limits to oil and gas exploration. That followed a public comment period, and the final ruling from Salazar is expected in November.

It’s a ruling many on the North Slope can live with, though people like Joseph Sage would rather not see any development in the largest parcel of federal land at all.

“To know that there are plans to have development in the NPR-A, it’s a, I’d say a stab in the heart. I hate to see it happen,” Sage said at a meeting in Washington, D.C.

Sage, a whaling captain, serves as the wildlife director for the Native Village of Barrow. This week, he’ll tell Congressional staff and the administration that he aims to pass down a subsistence lifestyle of catching all of his food. He wants his kids to do the same, just as his parents and grandparents did.

He can’t eat sandwiches in D.C., he joked, because lettuce doesn’t grow on the Tundra.

Sage called both the NPR-A and the Arctic Ocean sanctuaries: breeding grounds for the animals that feed his family. He said seal hunting will never be the same because of increased vessel traffic in the Arctic Ocean due to offshore exploratory drilling.

“That one day we counted four. Four ships,” he said. “Two of them were support ships for the drilling rigs, and the others were transportation rigs.”

And he worries what increased traffic – traffic related to drilling in the NPR-A – would mean for Caribou herds.

In D.C. with Sage is Lillian Stone. Both said their villages are full of people who welcome the change; who welcome the cash flow from oil, the education and the infrastructure developments.

Stone, a teacher at the school in Anaktuvak Pass, said it’s a full school this year: all grades, K-through 12 with 107 students.

Her village is 80 miles outside the NPR-A, but it’s where food grows and her family hunts.

Stone said she’s surprised the Alaska delegation in Congress pushes for more drilling in the NPR-A.

“I’m sad that they would not even put an ounce of fight in for us or to even understand, especially coming from Alaska,” she complained. “They’ve been there. They live there. And they know we live off the land and this is our way of life. I guess it boggles my mind.”

Regardless whether the Department of Interior finalizes its decision to lock down half of the reserve, oil and gas production will still proceed. There’s a lease sale in Anchorage in November 7th.