Thank you to the Colorado Democratic Congressional delegation for recognizing that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America’s last truly wild place, is not worth destroying for less than a year’s worth of oil.
When I first set foot in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I was completely unprepared for my instant connection to the landscape. As a born-and-raised Alaskan, the refuge was never a dream or bucket-list destination. So, when my husband and I headed north to check out a pack-rafting route we’d mapped through the refuge in 2015, I did not expect to be completely overwhelmed by the immense raw beauty and quietude of the refuge. However, I was viscerally shaken by the power of the landscape and had an intense appreciation the moment I stepped off the plane.
I was able to return to the refuge again in 2017 and traveled across the Coastal Plain, where I saw firsthand what this hotly contested landscape looks like on its own terms. It is one of the last intact landscapes on earth with all of its pre-westernization flora and fauna, home to a wide diversity of species including: caribou, musk oxen, wolves, polar bears and over 250 species of migratory birds. It is the opposite of a wasteland.
Additionally, it’s a place deeply connected to the lives of the Gwich’in people who hold the land sacred and rely on it to sustain their culture and way of life. It is often referred to as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” The matter of conserving this great landscape is not just a wilderness or recreational issue, but also a matter of indigenous rights.
The Arctic Refuge is federal public lands, collectively owned by all people of the United States – including Coloradans. The decision we make about these lands affects all Americans, and for close to 40 years, the majority of Americans have remained committed to protecting them. Last year, close to 700,000 people submitted comments in opposition to opening the Coastal Plain to oil and gas development. It is clear that Americans care deeply about protecting the Refuge, yet the Trump Administration and some in Congress, including all Colorado Republicans, continue to push forward with plans for development by way of a last minute provision that was added to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, allowing for drilling in the Arctic Refuge.
Commendably, many U.S. senators and representatives stood up to protect our Arctic Refuge. Our own Colorado senator, Michael Bennet, along with five other senators, introduced legislation to protect the Coastal Plain as wilderness, and many representatives, including Colorado Reps. Diane DeGette, Joe Neguse, Ed Perlmutter and Jason Crow voted to restore protections for the Arctic Refuge.
My husband, Thor, and I own Alpacka Raft in Mancos and operate it with my mother-in-law, Sheri, who is our lead designer. Our company was born after Thor’s 600-mile traverse of the Brooks Range which started in the heart of the Arctic Refuge in 2000. The protection of the Arctic Refuge is not only near and dear to our hearts, but we hear from customers every year who have traveled within the refuge, speaking of their profound experiences in the Brooks Range and Coastal Plains. Protecting this incredible landscape is important to us on both a personal and professional level.
At Alpacka Raft, we understand that resource development plays a critical part in the economy of our nation and national interests. The oil and gas industry is a significant contributor to the economy of Colorado, and oil wells are a common sight on public lands in the region. But we also believe that we can balance resource development with public land protection. Over 90% of Alaska’s North Slope is already open to oil and gas development. We recognize there is a balance between oil and gas and the protection of public lands. But, the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge is one of the most intact and diverse ecosystems left in the world, and should be kept this way.
The importance of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge far outweighs the short-term gains from opening it to drilling.
Sarah Tingey is a co-owner of Alpacka Raft. Based in Mancos, Alpacka handcrafts pack-rafts in rural Montezuma County.