In 1987, the Raegan administration first recommended oil drilling on the coastal plains of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the country’s largest remaining wilderness. Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists have fought to protect the area ever since. However, in 2017, Republicans used their control of both houses of Congress to pass a bill authorizing oil companies to lease the refuge. This past Monday, August 17, the Trump administration announced its plan to begin leasing parts of the refuge by December 2021.
In Kaktovik, one of the larger towns in ANWR, this issue is not divided along party lines. There is no unified voice. Lawmakers in Alaska, local energy firms, and several Alaska Native groups are excited for the jobs and revenue that would result from opening the refuge to drilling. Oil production has declined in Alaska since the 1980s, and billions of barrels of oil are believed to rest under the refuge’s coastal plain.
Others, like Untrodden’s partner and Kaktovik local, Robert Thompson, strongly oppose opening the refuge to drilling. He argues that neither oil companies nor his neighbors need money from this specific land. Ninety-five percent of ANWR is already open for drilling, and he thinks there is enough money in that land without the use of the coastal plain.
Drilling for oil both physically and symbolically threatens Inupiaq culture. Symbolically, it undermines Inupiaq values by placing emphasis on the land as a resource for money rather than subsistence. Further, drilling contributes to global warming. Thompson has been leading polar bear viewing trips in Kaktovik for years, and he already sees the effects of global warming on the bear population.
Tourism is a culturally and environmentally friendly alternative to drilling. While drilling would inevitably devastate Inupiaq culture, tourism promises economic growth through its celebration of the people, scenes, and animals that make up Kaktovik.