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Alaska Native Asks for Help to Fight Oil



Monday, February 16, 2015
Hanover — Environmental activist and Alaska native David Solomon held a talk at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church after services Sunday, telling congregants of Gwich’in native life in northern Alaska and urging them to contribute to conservation efforts for the region, which oil companies are lobbying to open for drilling.

Of special interest to Solomon is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the 19-million-acre northeast corner of Alaska that President Obama last month recommended for designation as a “wilderness,” the highest level of federal protection. Though it sets aside some 12 million acres of the refuge, Obama’s proposal doesn’t cover some sections of the coastal plain where energy interests hope to drill. Solomon and others who live near the refuge are seeking to expand the protections, while oil companies and Alaska’s representatives in Congress are decrying the measure, which they say is a financial misstep.

On Sunday, Solomon opened his talk with a brief introduction and a song in the Gwich’in language. The congregation listened appreciatively to the unfamiliar words as he repeated a few Gwich’in phrases, strumming along on a guitar. Then, as he switched to English, their faces lit up.

“Hallelujah, amen,” Solomon sang, translating. The audience laughed, clapped and sang along.

Regarding the efforts of oil interests to open the area for extraction, Solomon appeared confident that his side — the opposing one — would succeed. It wasn’t a matter of “if or when” they drill, he said; rather, “They’re not going to. We’re going to fight it until the end.” Time and again he reached to a map of Alaska that highlighted the Arctic Refuge, holding it up before the audience to illustrate his points. In the refuge, millions of birds and more than 100,000 caribou are estimated to rear their young each year.

To further illustrate his position on conservation, Solomon explained his ancestors’ frugal way of life. On the table in front of him was a great array of items made from animals his people hunted: leathers, bones, skins and furs, made into boots, belts, vests, necklaces, straps, holsters, shoulder bags, blankets and moccasins.

The Gwich’in people use every last bit of a kill, he said, and take only what they need for themselves and their families — a far cry from the consumer culture reigning in the rest of America.

Solomon is on a 10-day visit to Burlington and the Upper Valley, where, besides the church, he has visited classes and dinners for native students at Dartmouth College, according to John Demos, who helped organize the trip for the Alaska Wilderness League.

The 58-year-old Solomon is here on behalf of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a protectionist organization of which both his father and uncle have been members.

In his Sunday talk, he described the origins of the committee, founded in 1988 in response to proposals to drill for oil on the coastal plain, which the Gwich’in call “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” The committee and the oil companies are still duking it out over the region, estimated to contain billions of barrels of oil.

Solomon’s father, Jonathon, died in 2006, and though a spot on the committee isn’t yet open for the younger Solomon, he travels the country as a volunteer for the group, spreading awareness of the Gwich’in lifestyle and the danger he says energy projects pose to it.

Meanwhile, Alaska’s elected representatives are seeking to bring those projects to the Arctic Refuge. Last month, after Obama recommended the protections, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska , and U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska , held a joint press conference where they vehemently criticized the president’s action.

“It is a one, two, three kick to the gut of Alaska’s economy,” Murkowski said. “We have said as a delegation that we will not stand it, we will not tolerate it, we will do everything we can to push back against an administration that has taken a look at Alaska and decided, ‘It’s a nice little snow globe up there and we’re going to keep it that way.’ That’s not how you treat a state. Show us some respect.” Reaching back into history, Solomon rejected the argument that the purportedly oil-rich territory is a potential boon to the state’s economy.

To the west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field is the country’s largest and most productive source of petroleum. When production began in the 1970s, companies brought in many out-of-state workers who took their pay elsewhere, Solomon said.

“How would it feel, in your backyard, if I threw you ten cents ... and when I get done I throw you a quarter and say ‘Thank you’ and walk away?” he said.

And that’s why, Solomon told the congregation at St. Thomas, “We need your help.” After the talk, the activist took questions from the 30-person audience.

“What would be the most effective thing we could do if we really wanted to help with this?” a woman said.

Write to Congress, Solomon told her.

And, he added, call the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by its full name. People often shorten it to “ANWR” (pronounced “anwar”), a convenience that passes over the full meaning of the place and makes it less precious, he said.

Demos, for his part, is an active lobbyist from Maine who says he’s spoken personally to such figures as U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who told the environmentalist he was against drilling in the refuge.

Obama’s proposal to designate the refuge a “wilderness,” banning mining, drilling and any permanent structures, requires approval from Congress before it’s official. Meanwhile, Alaskan Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan last week introduced a bill that would open the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain for drilling.

And in related business, the Republican majority in both houses is soon expected to hand the chief executive a bill authorizing the Keystone Pipeline, legislation he has promised to veto.

Tuesday afternoon, Solomon will present to ticket-holders at the Montshire Museum in Norwich. The next day, he’ll appear at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, where his talk will be included with regular museum admission.

Two free events with Solomon will follow this week, first on Friday at UVM’s Benedict Auditorium, and then Sunday at the St. James Episcopal Church in Woodstock.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.