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Rural Alaska villages resist oil development at Yukon Flats

Gwichin Indian leaders worried about spills, changes to territory

Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ANCHORAGE - The new generators in this remote Yukon Flats village shut down every night at 10:30, after the televised evening news, as a way to save fuel. The electric blackout ends in the morning, before caribou meat and other frozen goods begin to thaw.

Times are getting harder in Arctic Village, where diesel fuel arrives by air tanker and retails for $8.50 a gallon. But soaring fuel costs haven't softened opposition here and in other Yukon Flats villages to oil drilling in their own region.

A complex land trade that would hasten oil and gas exploration inside the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge continues to draw protest from local villages, despite a promise of jobs and revenue from the region's big Native corporation, Doyon Ltd.

Indeed, packed houses at community meetings helped slow the six-year negotiation to a crawl, and time may now be running out for Bush administration officials who support the deal.

Gwichin Indian leaders say they are worried about pollution from oil spills in the vast wetland basin. They also fear changes to their hunting and fishing territory that would come with a road connection to the outside world.

Trimble Gilbert, the 73-year-old traditional chief in Arctic Village, said he is advising people to hone their hunting and trapping skills to prepare for the hard economic times ahead. An oil boom would offer only a short-term respite, he said.

"Yukon Flats oil, I don't think it's going to last very long. And what then?" Gilbert said during a recent community festival day, where he showed his authority by beating the village's young men in a bow-and-arrow contest.

While debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge immediately to the north has been a national cause celebre, the debate over the Yukon Flats Refuge has been mostly an obsession in Interior Alaska for the past four years.

But the Yukon case ripples with many of the same themes: national energy security, subsistence vs. jobs, a Native vs. Native power struggle.

It's a much smaller field, however - estimates of oil on the Yukon Flats range from 173 million barrels of oil to more than 800 million barrels, compared to estimates for the Arctic coastal plain starting at 5.7 billion barrels and running much higher.

There's a better potential for gas than oil on the Yukon Flats, the U.S. Geological Survey has said.

For Doyon, which has been looking at the region's oil and gas potential since making its land-claims selections in the 1970s, the local opposition has been frustrating. The corporation has said the land swap and successful development of oil and gas fields there is vital to its future.

"It's clearly taken longer than most people anticipated," said Jim Mery, senior vice president for lands and natural resources for the Fairbanks-based Native corporation.

Mery pointed out that several Yukon Flats villages - the smallest ones are losing their school-age population - have favored the trade. Doyon's backers in other communities, he said, "choose not to engage in debate in a village setting."

The proposed land trade, first unveiled in 2004 after two years of private negotiation, would give Doyon 110,000 acres of refuge land with high oil and gas potential, and another 97,000 acres of subsurface drilling rights. Doyon would gain access to current inholdings via a swath of land through the middle of the wildlife refuge.

In return, the federal government would receive at least 150,000 acres of Doyon land inside refuge boundaries with good fish and wildlife habitat. Another 120,000 acres of Doyon inholdings could also be folded into the trade in the future.

The 11-million-acre Yukon Flats Refuge is the nation's third-largest wildlife refuge. Congress created it in 1980 under the complex sorting-out of Alaska's federal lands triggered by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act a decade earlier. That act gave Doyon the right to select land around villages inside the refuge-to-be.

Refuge officials have promoted the exchange, saying the new federal acreage would improve the government's ability to manage the vast region of lakes and oxbow rivers for wildlife. National environmental groups oppose the swap, saying they worry about a precedent for opening refuges to oil development.

In the Interior, the topic has developed into a classic dispute between two Native power centers, the village-based tribes and the regional Native corporation.

"They're acting like any other corporation," said Dacho Alexander, chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwichin tribal government in Fort Yukon, the area's governmental hub and a center of the opposition. "I think those special feelings (for a Native-owned corporation) went away a long time ago."

This year's escalation in oil prices has complicated the trade significantly.

With oil and gas drilling rights more valuable, the acreage trade worked out in 2004 is probably way out of balance, critics say. Fixing the deal could mean giving away much more Native corporation inholdings, which local villagers want to keep in Native hands.

Mery concedes that more Native land will probably have to be surrendered, up to a limit. The amount of extra acreage won't have to match the rise in oil prices because there's a risk that exploratory drilling will be disappointing, he said.

At the same time, the higher price makes it more likely that Doyon can go ahead with oil development on its own holdings in Yukon Flats, without any land trade, Mery said. Access is guaranteed to Native corporation land inside a refuge, subject to certain restrictions.

He said the corporation is discussing the possibility with several potential partners.

"We think in the current environment, this makes even more sense," Mery said. "We think there is a good case for the trade to be made to the next administration."

Critics portray the proposed trade as a ploy by the Bush administration to open more federal land to oil companies. They say the original plan was to approve the trade on a fast track, without an environmental impact statement.

"I don't think the refuge is supportive of this deal," said Fort Yukon's Alexander. "I think it came from the top down."

Yukon Flats refuge staff referred questions about the trade to a regional public affairs specialist based in Anchorage, who has not been personally involved.

Bruce Woods said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to support the trade as a good deal for the American public.The approval schedule has slipped, however, with the plan in a "holding pattern" while internal discussions over the appraisals take place, he said.

Release of a final environmental impact statement, originally scheduled for October, could be delayed, he said. A substantial change in the number of acres involved could require a separate document known as a supplemental EIS, he said.

"Obviously, we do not know at this stage when the final appraisal will be done, so it puts all the other dates up in the air," Woods said.

Meanwhile, in the Yukon Flats villages, talk turns frequently to the North Slope villagers of Nuiqsut, who saw the Alpine oil field grow up next to them. Nuiqsut villagers spoke at a Gwichin gathering in Beaver several years ago.

"They were made the same promises. There'd be jobs, better schools, subsistence resources would be protected," said Alexander.

"They can see light everywhere they used to hunt and fish," said Gilbert, the chief in Arctic Village.

Gilbert's village has been prominent in the fight over drilling in the Arctic Refuge, which they contend could hurt the caribou herd on which they depend. The fight over the Yukon Flats Refuge, tribal leaders say, belongs more to the people around Fort Yukon. Arctic Village, though distant, is providing support.

Arctic Village is not part of the Doyon region but depends on the same healthy wetlands basin for its food, Trimble said. And all the area's villages are Gwichin, bound to help each other in times of famine for more than a century.

"We fight to keep it closed because of our hunting traditions," said Lorraine Tritt, 39, the elected tribal chief of Arctic Village. "I don't think money is that important to us. I think the food we eat is important."



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