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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Another Indigenous People Being Trampled in the Name of White Greed and Over-Consumption?

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge is in danger, and included in the danger are 10 villages of Alaska Native People who depend on the plants and animals in the refuge and its lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands for their subsistence and traditional way of life.

The Players: Ted Stevens (R-AK) of “bridge to nowhere” fame
Doyon, Ltd. – a Native-owned development company (more on them later)
FWS – The US Fish and Wildlife Service – responsible for maintaining and protecting the wildlife, plants and integrity of all the National Wildlife Refuges in the Refuge System.
Gwich’in Nation – Alaskan Native communities of Yukon Flats

What’s Happening: Doyon, Ltd. is working with FWS to engineer a land swap. Doyon would give FWS about 150,000 acres of prime habitat in return for about 110,000 acres of ground in another area plus 97,000 acres of underground mineral rights in the reserve. This land is suggested to have both oil and natural gas reserves capable of producing about 300 million barrels per year of oil.

So why is this a bad thing?

Yukon Flats is described as only one of four truly pristine Wildlife Refuges in the Refuge System. Any development by Doyon in the area will result in roads, pipelines and other infrastructure crossing major portions of habitat area and all the attendant pollution. noise, inadvertent habitat destruction and other problems.

Supporters of the proposal say that because the local unemployment rate is near 80% the Natives should be jumping at the chance to have jobs and money pouring into their communities. And besides, Doyon is owned by the Natives so what’s the problem?

Appearances can be deceptive. While Doyon IS owned by the Natives through shares in the company – it is managed by a board of directors. The board is all in favor of the project – and has told FWS that if the swap deal doesn’t go through, they will just drill on the land they already have – much of it lying within the refuge. Recently a vote of the shareholders was held – and the result was that the shareholders did NOT want to do any development. Doyon has a past history of promises made and not kept and there are charges that the board has been hand-picked by oil interests or paid off by them, although there has been no evidence brought forward to support this.

The land swap first was proposed in 2004 and was moving quite slowly – in 2005 it was reported that things would probably not even get to the stage of an Environmental Impact Statement for 10-15 years. FWS could not get the funding rounded up to do the EIS, and it looked for a while like the project was dead in the water. Oil was $55 a barrel at the time.

In steps our lovely friend, Sen. Ted Stevens, with a tidy “earmark” for $400,000 to pay for the EIS. Gee whiz! Oil is now over $110 a barrel – we’ve got to go get that out of the ground now!! And voila! The EIS draft is in the public comment period right now.

Problems everywhere, and the EIS is no exception. The draft EIS is a 400 page document – and for most of the Natives, English is their second language. The comment period is only 60 days (and runs out March 25). Many of the tribal First Chiefs and other elders have complained that the time frame to really study this document was much too short – particularly since it was provided to them with no translation.

Angry Gwich’in tribal members have protested the land swap on a number of levels – giving away more land then what is being given back, habitat destruction of any oil/gas development, ruining a way of life that has sustained them for thousands of years, suspicion of the motives of the Doyon board and its true plans, among others. Every public meeting held in the Yukon Flats area during the comment period has been packed with Gwich’in and others opposed to this project and very few supporters. One First Chief in a community is in danger of being tossed out because he supports the project but his community does not.

Opponents of the proposal have stated publicly that they believe the reason it is on a fast track is because they are trying to get it approved while the oil-friendly Bush Administration is still in power and they think that if the Democrats succeed in gaining control of the White House and all federal agencies that it would not happen.

Doyon has used its threats of “development anyway” to box the FWS into a position where they are trading away the very land they are supposed to protect. But Doyon is also in a peculiar position. It does not have the resources to do a development of this scale on its own – and no other big oil company has currently expressed any interest in working with them – probably because most if not all of the profits from any such deal will go to the Gwich'in Nations and the Doyon shareholders – almost all of whom are Alaskan Natives. So the threat seems pretty empty.

In any case – with the help of Ted Stevens – a suspect ‘development’ company is prepared to ride roughshod over the land rights and subsistence way of life of the very people who own the company. Promises of employment in the past have not materialized, and oil revenues from other projects on Native lands have not resulted in any increase in the living of most of the Natives there. As one Gwich'in elder said - "Now I can always hunt and get food, but if they take away or destroy the land even that is gone. How do I survive then?"

How we can help:

First: Go to the EIS comment site before March 25 and ask that the comment period be extended another 60-90 days. That will give the various organizations involved in trying to protect Yukon Flats time to gather petitions and mound a defense against this.
Second: This site has a ‘boilerplate’ letter – please write your own comments and then sign the open letter to FWS Regional Director Tom Melius at
Third: Read more about it.
This site has a complete list of organizations supporting the Gwich’in Nations in their opposition to the plan:
This site has links to local news stories, to the EIS site and many others dealing with the issues here:

We need to be developing alternatives to fossil fuels – not raping more pristine land and forcing more Native peoples off theirs.

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.