The Present - In the far northern reaches of Alaska and Canada lives a group of villagers known collectively as, the "people of the deer." For thousands of years these subsistence people have hunted and fished to survive. Positioned strategically to the timeless migration routes of their main food source, the Gwitch'in villages of North America carry with them a lifestyle that has transcended time. It is the caribou which forms the stronghold of their culture.
Every year the Gwitch'in hunt thousands of caribou from the Porcupine caribou herd. In consuming the nourishment that they provide, the Gwitch'in complete a cycle where the life of the caribou passes from the land that bore them, to the veins of the Indians that hunted and killed them. This is a culture that has sustained itself since 4,500 B.C.
There is one catch though, the cows of the Porcupine herd give birth in a place called the 1002. The 1002 is a number that the federal government has assigned to the coastal region of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Underneath the 1002 (potentially) lie several billion barrels of crude oil.
To the Gwitch'in the 1002 is sacred. Thousands of caribou calves are birthed there every year. Yet representatives of Alaska and Washington D.C, don't see it that way. To them, the oil of the 1002 means continued prosperity. Yet in our quest for more oil, we seem to be forgetting one thing, "a society that thrives on non-renewable energy sources can not survive".
The Past - Forty-two years ago, 2,000 miles away, Vice President Richard Nixon was dedicating the opening of the Dalles Dam. The dam was built for the purpose of providing the Pacific Northwest with "abundant cheap energy." But when the dam was built, water behind it was let loose, inundating a Native American fishing village known as Celilo Falls. In just six hours a culture that was 11,000 years in the making was forever put to rest. With no place to fish, and no salmon left to catch, the Wyams were forced to re-locate. For their loss each Indian was compensated $3,750.
Today, the Army Corps of Engineers spends over $100 million a year of taxpayers money trying to bring the salmon of the Columbia River back. Perhaps if we wouldn't have built "so many" dams, then we might not have to waste our time today trying to bring them back.
The Alternatives - Were there alternatives to building the dam, and was there forewarning about the dam's impact on the salmon? Yes!
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported that major impacts on the salmon population could occur if the dam were built. The commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies recommended the power needs of the people be met by the full development of the already completed dams.
Are there alternatives to meeting the energy needs of the people today and is there a forewarning about the effects of oil development on caribou? Yes!
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that major effects on the Porcupine caribou herd could occur if the 1002 area were leased for oil and gas exploration. Several organizations, including: the Gwitch'in steering committee, 160 members of congress, and 250 scientists agree that their are alternatives available for meeting our present energy needs.
The alternatives include:
Further production of the National Petroleum Preserve
Production of the new oil sites: Alpine, Northstar, Tarn and West Sak.
Production of natural gas reservoirs
The future - If you value more than just cheap energy, and can appreciate the Gwitch'in way of life, then help them preserve their culture for future generations by letting Sens. Frank Murkowski or Ted Stevens know that you want the 1002 portion of ANWR to be forever wild. If enough people do, then eventually Alaska's representatives won't have to rely on oil companies for their re-election, but sensible Alaskans instead. If enough of us speak our mind then history won't have to repeat itself; more of our money won't have be wasted.
Kwame Diehl of Juneau is a former biologist for the U.S Army Corps Engineers.