Protect the Refuge

 The Sacred Place Where Life Begins


A Film by Jeremy La Zelle and Kristin Gates

Film Festivals and Awards 2019

It's best to experience firsthand what you're fighting for.  When two adventurers embark on a dangerous four-month expedition documenting the world’s longest land mammal migration through the Arctic Refuge of Alaska, they soon discover an incredible ecosystem protected by the Gwich’in Nation for more than 20,000 years, yet held on the precipice of collapse by resource development corporations.

Film Festivals and Awards 2019

The Arctic Refuge

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 become iconic for both the oil industry and environmentalists.  For the oil industry, if they can get into a wildlife refuge that has been protected for decades, they can get in anywhere.  For environmentalists, this is the last great wilderness.  

The Gwich'in Nation


"In no case may a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence."

- International Covenants on Human Rights

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.  They 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.  


"There is no satisfactory substitute for the cultural, spiritual and nutritional value that the Porcupine Caribou Herd delivers to the Gwich'in people.  


The coastal plains are sacred to the Gwich'in people, they are vital habitat to  caribou, polar bears, birds, fish, and other animals, 95% of Alaska's arctic coast is already open to development . . . why are the coastal plains being opened to development?  

The Arctic Refuge is Opened to Big Oil

The Tax Bill 2017

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 trying 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 shocking and unacceptable.  For more talking points please visit the Northern Alaska Environmental Center's page here.  

Your opinion matters.  During the public commenting periods, please bring up issues you are worried about and tell the  BLM here.  



"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."



-Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of Old Crow, Yukon Territories, Canada


Meet the Gwich'in 


An Environmental and a Human Rights Issue


The Gwich’in Nation is right now fighting to defend not just their land and animals but their own culture. The Gwich’in, also known as the Caribou People, 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. They 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 is a threat to the Gwich’in way of life. Without the Herd, communities would be forced to move to urban areas because the cost of living is too expensive without the caribou to depend on for sustenance and nutrition. “There is no satisfactory substitute for the cultural, spiritual, and nutritional value that the Porcupine Caribou Herd delivers to the Gwich’in People.” (Bernadette Dimientieff)


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 plains 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. 



When I was 25 years old, I bushwhacked across the state of Alaska by myself and witnessed a corner of the Porcupine Caribou Herd migration. It is the holiest sight I have ever seen and just being out there has changed the course of my life. Jeremy Là Zelle and I headed into the Refuge this spring to visit every Gwich’in Community we could and document the migration of the Porcupine Herd and as much of the wildlife as possible. We are creating media for the Gwich’in Steering Committee and any group that will promote this issue.  We hope to help in the fight and are doing everything we can to stand with our Gwich’in friends during this difficult time. We are the best people to tell this story because we have lived with the Gwich’in, we have lived with the Porcupine Caribou, and we have the filmmaking skills necessary to tell the story in a powerful way. So much is at stake. There is so little time to make a difference. Help us to stand with the Gwich’in and share their important story before it is too late.




The Film


During 2018, Kristin Gates and Jeremy La Zelle went on a series of expeditions that took them across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the homeland of the Gwich'in.  Their hope is to create powerful media to advocate for the protection of the Refuge.  They followed the Porcupine Caribou Migration for three weeks on foot.  They camped on the coastal plains with polar bears and endured a three day storm.  They packrafted 500 miles down the Porcupine River.  They also spent time in communities across the Gwich'in Nation and attended the Gwich'in Gathering.  

The filmmakers 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, and the Sierra Club (this edit has nearly half a million views).  

They are currently giving presentations and sharing their 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 to Our Partners

Special Thanks to the Gwich'in Steering Committee 


Meet the Filmmakers


Jeremy La Zelle:

Jeremy travels around the world filming and documenting exciting projects for TV Networks, Nations, NGOs, Charities, and Businesses who make a positive social impact on their communities.

Jeremy has written, directed, and produced for National Geographic Channel, History Channel, Animal Planet, nations such as the Kingdom of Bhutan, Kingdom of Eswatini, Ethiopia, Peru, and many more.  


Kristin Gates: 

Kristin moved to Alaska's Arctic at the age of 23 and she immediately fell in love with the mountains of the Brooks Range.  A few years later, she decided to walk solo across Alaska's Arctic from the Canadian border to the Chukchi Sea on a 1,000 mile route that she mapped out herself.  

She ran into a corner of the Porcupine Caribou herd migration.  Followed their game trails.  She saw grizzly bears, wolves, and an intact ecosystem.  The experience changed her life and she became focused on dedicating all of her energy towards learning and protecting Alaska's Arctic from development.  

Kristin got into film through wilderness conservation and helped with a film about the Road to Ambler in Alaska's western Arctic.  She has also produced, filmed, and edited two other short films.  One about dog mushing and climate change and the other about plastics pollution in the circumpolar north.