Defending the Arctic Refuge
"A stunningly beautiful, deeply heartfelt, powerfully convincing film on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Gwich'in Nation's struggle to defend the sacred place and their way of life arrives -- just when we need it the most."
- Professor Subhanker Banerjee [Scientist, Educator, Artist, Activist, Storied Arctic Adventurer]
"Inspiring, entertaining and educational. Don't miss it! They might be in your city soon."
- Artist Mary Little
"Kristin and Jeremy spent a majority of the late winter, spring, & summer out on the land traveling and talking with people to ensure that they had the images and voices from the front lines of the issue. Together they've been able to combine this knowledge of the issue, connection to the coalition, relationships with the people most connected with passion, dedication, and creativity to produce incredibly powerful videos."
- Dan Ritzman [Director, Lands, Water, Wildlife Campaign Sierra Club]
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is in the northeastern corner of Alaska. The coastal plain of the Refuge is some the most important habitat in Alaska's Arctic. Every year, 40,000 caribou are born here. Every year, over 200 species of migratory birds stop here during their migration. Every year, this is the thickest polar bear denning site in Alaska. And every year, the coastal plain continues to be the center of a huge political controversy.
The Arctic Refuge has nothing to do with the Tax Bill. However, since many senators support the Arctic Refuge becoming wilderness and would oppose legislation solely directed at its development, pro oil development players used the budget process as a back-door means of opening the region to the oil and gas industry.
The Tax Bill listed Oil and Gas and the purpose of the Refuge ignoring subsistence and clean water as well as a place for animals to thrive. The Tax Bill put oil before everything including the Gwich'in people.
The Department of Interior is currently in the process of holding a lease sale in the Coastal Plain. It announced on March 8th, 2018, that it will be moving forward on an aggressive timeline to allow oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to consider all the environmental and social impacts of a proposal before acting. This usually takes five years but the opposition is trying to finish everything in one year. They are working to sell drilling rights before another administration can intervene.
Their rushed work has been sloppy. In the draft of the environmental impact statement, impacts on wildlife are dramatically understated. It also says that there will be no impact on the Gwich'in people. This blatant disregard for the human rights of the Gwich'in is unacceptable.
"What kind of life are we really living if everything is for sale and nothing is sacred? My people's culture and those elders, they're not for sale. My culture is not for sale. If somebody else wants to put a price tag on it, that's their misgiving, and it's their inability to see what true value is. Because I think this is much more than just five percent of the coast. This is one hundred percent of my people."
Chief of Old Crow, Yukon Territories, Canada
The Gwich'in live in 13 villages along the Porcupine Caribou herd's migration route in Northeastern Alaska and Northwestern Canada. They have been physically and spiritually tied to the herd for over 20,000 years. The Gwich'in rely on the herd to sustain and continue their way of life. Caribou are the main food source for most of the surrounding villages in the Interior. A threat to the health of the Herd or to the migratory pattern of the Herd is a threat to the Gwich'in way of life.
The coastal plains are sacred to the Gwich'in , they are vital habitat to caribou, polar bears, birds, fish, and other animals. 95% of Alaska's arctic coast is already open to development.
“There is no satisfactory substitute for the cultural, spiritual, and nutritional value that the Porcupine Caribou Herd delivers to the Gwich’in People.”
The fight to protect the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving grounds from oil and gas development has been going on for decades but now, time is running out. The world needs to stand with the Gwich’in now.
The area that is at stake for oil and gas development is known by the Gwich’in as “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins” because it is the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Every year this 200,000 animal herd migrates to the coastal plains and 40,000 calves are born. The herd uses the coastal plain as its nursery because of the abundance of food, because the cool breeze from the Arctic Ocean gives them relief from mosquitoes, and because the open landscape makes it easier to watch for predators. Calf mortality rates skyrocket on the years that the herd is not able to make it here. Studies of female caribou from neighboring herds have shown that their use of developed areas has dropped by 78%. The Central and Western Arctic caribou herds were able to move elsewhere when Prudhoe Bay was developed because the coastal plains are much more extensive in this part of the Arctic. In the Refuge, however, there is only 18 miles between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. Development would be enormously disruptive to the herd, potentially causing them to change their migration route which would be devastating to Gwich’in villages.
Across the Circumpolar north, caribou herds populations have been decreasing and wildlife biologists like Catherine Gangnon, who we interviewed for the film, are increasingly convinced that this is due solely to development. The Porcupine Caribou herd is the last herd in North America with healthy numbers because its migration route is untouched by industry.
The coastal plains of the Arctic Refuge are also the thickest polar bear denning sight in all of Alaska. Five to eight million shorebirds forage here and rest each spring on their way to arctic breeding grounds. More than 200 different species of bird migrate to the Refuge. Five species of loons, tundra swans, golden plovers, snowy owls and the Arctic tern (which migrates from Antarctica) all depend on the Refuge. The Refuge is also home to musk oxen, wolves, arctic fox, lynx, wolverines, moose, grizzly bear, black bear and many other species.
The Gwich’in are not against oil and gas development altogether but they are 100% against it on the coastal plains of the Refuge because they know how much it will impact the animals that they have lived alongside for thousands of years. The United States has other oil resources and it is unnecessary to destroy the Gwich'in culture for the sake of oil and gas.
During 2018, Jeremy La Zelle and I went on a series of expeditions that took us across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the homeland of the Gwich'in. Our hope was to create powerful media to advocate for the protection of the Refuge. We followed the Porcupine Caribou Migration for three weeks on foot. We camped on the coastal plains with polar bears and endured a three day storm. We packrafted 500 miles down the Porcupine River. We also spent time in communities across the Gwich'in Nation and attended the Gwich'in Gathering.
Jeremy and I have been sharing media and making edits for free for any group that will promote this issue. They made edits for the Gwich'in Steering Committee, Bernie Sanders, Alpacka Raft, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Defenders of Wildlife, the Alaska Wilderness League, and the Sierra Club (this edit has nearly half a million views).
We are currently giving presentations and sharing our film around the world to encourage all to stand with the Gwich'in Nation.
Below you can watch the edit they made for the Sierra Club:
Thank you so much for supporting our work in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge! We wouldn’t have been able to take any of these steps without the amazing support we have received. It is wonderful to be a part of the large community that is standing with the Gwich'in Nation who have been working to defend the Refuge for decades.
Our media has been utilized by the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Bernie Sanders, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and others, to advocate for the Protection of the Arctic Refuge.
Our footage traveled around the country in an exhibit with the Wilderness Society to encourage public action: https://www.wilderness.org/
Our media is also being used as part of a living map of the Refuge that Defenders of Wildlife is Creating.
“The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” our 22-minute film, has been featured in over 50 film festivals around the globe and won numerous awards including “Best Short Documentary”, “Best Conservation Film” and “Best Cinematography. An edit we made for the Sierra Club and Gwich’in Steering Committee has over half a million views.
We are currently working on a second documentary in collaboration with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center to encourage public action to protect the Arctic Refuge.
We cannot thank you enough for your support and encouragement and for helping us to raise awareness about how important the Arctic Refuge is. We plan to continue this work for the rest of our lives and we are grateful that your help enabled us to get started.