Published on
the Anchorage Daily News

Alaskan Wildlife Refuge Should Not Be Held Hostage to Greed

Nicole Whittington-Evans

Alaskans, especially residents of communities in and near the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, have good reason to oppose the proposed land swap between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Doyon Ltd.

This land exchange will dramatically alter the livelihoods of local residents. Many are Doyon shareholders who oppose the exchange and who have been unfairly deprived of a voice in the deal through a rushed public comment process.

The Yukon Flats refuge encompasses 11 million acres of some of the most productive wildlife habitat in North America. It includes the highest density of breeding ducks in Alaska and as well as three species of salmon and hundreds of other species of birds, mammals and fish.

Gwich'in Athabascan people have relied on these resources for thousands of years. Subsistence activities continue to define the cultural and social fabric of the eight Native villages in and near the refuge. This rich ecological breeding ground is also valued by waterfowl hunters and birdwatchers around the world and by the commercial and sport fishing industries that depend on the Yukon River watershed.

The Yukon Flats refuge was established to protect the area's unique fish and wildlife resources, to fulfill international treaty obligations, to provide for continued subsistence uses and to ensure necessary water quality and quantity. Neither fragmenting the refuge -- an inevitable result of the proposed exchange -- nor oil and gas development are compatible with these purposes. Indeed, the Fish and Wildlife Service currently does not allow oil and gas development on the refuge.

The proposed swap would exchange 110,000 acres of refuge land and 97,000 acres of subsurface rights on the refuge for 150,000 acres of Doyon-owned land. At first glance it may appear that the agency stands to gain from this exchange because it would receive additional lowland, wetland acres. In fact, those lowlands would almost certainly be threatened by the inevitable infrastructure associated with oil and gas facilities upstream.

In addition to groundwater contamination and pollutants traveling downstream, the large water withdrawals required by oil development would surely compromise lowland wetlands. Lowland lakes in the Yukon Flats refuge are already drying up due to climate change. And the Fish and Wildlife Service admits it would take no more than three days for a large oil spill on the proposed exchange lands to reach the Yukon River.

The agency's proposed giveaway includes lands within its own recommended wilderness area and lands adjacent to Beaver Creek, a designated "wild" river and popular recreation destination.

Doyon, the largest private landholder in Alaska, wants to acquire the lands with the highest potential for producing oil and gas, even if it adversely affects Native residents and recreational visitors. Without these lands there is little chance Doyon will attract industry partners. Also, if the land exchange is approved and infrastructure is built here, it will be easier for Doyon to expand its operations into other parts of the refuge. Perhaps this is why the corporation is willing to go against the wishes of its shareholders to gain approval for this project.

The Exxon Valdez case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court reminds us of how an oil company can operate. Like Exxon, Doyon has a poor track record when it comes to pollution violations. Doyon pleaded guilty to 15 violations of the Oil Pollution Act for dumping hazardous wastes down wells, and one of its drilling rigs violated air quality permits at the Alpine oil field. It seems clear that Doyon is the only winner in this land exchange. The people who depend on the rich resources of the refuge, and the wildlife that call this land home, will be the big losers.

Nicole Whittington-Evans is associate regional director for The Wilderness Society in Anchorage.

© Copyright 2008, The Anchorage Daily News

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