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Arctic Wildlife Refuge: Protect This Sacred Place
Published on Monday, March 5, 2001 in the Seattle Times
Arctic Wildlife Refuge
Protect This Sacred Place
by Lora Gross and Tanya Becker
We are people of faith, concerned about the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the remote northeast corner of Alaska. We urge our federal policymakers, vested with the responsibility of stewarding our national lands, to vote against any attempt to open the refuge to oil exploration and drilling.

"Never, I believe, had God worked more wondrously than in the creation of this beautiful (place)," wrote Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas as he reflected on his experiences in the Refuge.

What perhaps sparked such awe within Justice Douglas also forms the heart of the Arctic Refuge: a creative power at work, unimpeded by human disturbances. For example, the rare muskoxen, a relic of the last ice age, freely gather here to search for food to survive the winter. Wolves, foxes and grizzly bears roam the open tundra. Each year, over 180 species of birds from nearly every state in the nation flock to the Refuge to breed and hatch their young, and to gather strength for their long migrations south.

In the winter, the coastal plain becomes America's most important on-shore denning area for polar bears. At the end of their long, arduous migration, the 129,000 members of the Porcupine caribou herd also gather on this coastal plain amidst a lush garden of flowers, lichen and plants to give birth and nurse their young.

It is these caribou that sustain the Gwich'in Athabascan people. For almost 20,000 years, the Gwich'in people have depended upon the caribou for their physical, cultural and spiritual survival. For the Gwich'in, this coastal plain is "the sacred place where life begins." Perhaps Justice Douglas glimpsed this Gwich'in reality.

Although we are not Gwich'in, nor do we live in Northeast Alaska, as people of faith we feel compelled to stand with the Gwich'in, the bishops of the Episcopal Church and its sister church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches, and several other communities of faith to adamantly oppose oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic National (note: this is not just an "Alaskan" issue) Wildlife Refuge. We oppose such activities because they pose serious threats to human rights and to the environment.

This is a human-rights issue because, in the words of Gwich'in spokesperson Jonathan Solomon, "the Porcupine caribou are central to our culture, our religion, our social structure and our livelihood. Oil development on the coastal plain would not only threaten the caribou we depend on, it would threaten the future of our people."

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has conducted studies on caribou that directly link the presence of oil-extraction complexes (i.e., Prudhoe Bay) with diminished calf production and survival rates. Such an impact would obviously threaten the fabric of the Gwich'in subsistence culture.

On a broader environmental level, the Refuge comprises the last 5 percent of Alaska's North Slope not already open to oil exploration and drilling. This small piece of our remaining national wildlands would yield less than 200 days of oil to meet U.S. demands. For these 200 days of life-as-usual, fossil-fuel consumption, we sacrifice the health of the Gwich'in, the caribou, the muskoxen, the birds and the myriad flora and fauna that make up this "American Serengeti." As faithful people, called to be a blessing to God's creation, this sacrifice is truly abhorrent.

We call on our congressional "stewards" to protect this sacred place - and we make this call with the words of Rachel Carson ringing in our hearts and consciences:

"I believe that whenever we destroy beauty or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of our spiritual growth."

Dr. Lora Gross is a visiting professor of theology at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma. Tanya Becker is a program associate with Earth Ministry, Seattle.

Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company


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