December was a disappointing month for public lands. Congressional and executive actions over the past few weeks have opened up millions of acres of once-protected land in Utah and Alaska to oil and gas drilling, putting the environment at risk while breaching the trust and endangering the security of thousands of Native Americans.
Last week, the president traveled to Utah to announce unprecedented reductions to Bears Ears national monument and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, protected lands that are significant to conservationists and Native Americans for their ecological, historical, and cultural status. Just yesterday, Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which includes a provision that opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. This provision will contribute to climate change and puts the Arctic environment at risk, which threatens the thousands of G’wichin tribe members who depend on ANWR for its natural resources.
An affront to Native Americans
These policy decisions are an affront to thousands of Native Americans, especially those living in the regions directly impacted. By enacting these sweeping policy changes, lawmakers and the president have wrestled control away from the Native Americans who live in and around the affected land. Instead of Washington, DC imposing land use policies upon Native Americans in Utah and Alaska, the government should be partnering with and taking their cues from the tribes who act as stewards of the land’s resources and cultural history. By failing to do so now, Congress and the administration have added yet another chapter to the long history of the U.S. breaching trust with Native Americans.
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When President Obama first designated Bears Ears as a national monument in 2016, it was the first time in U.S. history that Native American tribes were included as partners in that process. Not only did the president hear and respond to their concerns that the land deserved special protection because of its cultural and sacred significance, but he also designated much of the oversight and ongoing decision-making regarding Bears Ears to where it belonged: in the hands of Native American tribes that have kept its natural, cultural, and sacred history for generations. Now, President Trump has taken a monumental step backward, returning to a paradigm in which the federal government imposes decisions upon Native Americans without so much as considering their perspective, let alone inviting and heeding their leadership.
By upending the agreement between the government and the Native American tribes that came together to see Bears Ears preserved, the administration has put millennia of cultural history and millions of years of natural history at risk. Bears Ears is sacred to several tribes in the region, and it is home to approximately 100,000 Native American artifacts, from pottery to inscriptions and drawings to dwelling places. Now, the president has opened 85% of it up to resource extraction, which would scar the sacred land and cause artifacts to be displaced or destroyed.
Drilling within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge threatens the Gwich’in culture, their traditional way of life, and the spiritual wellness that is deeply inherent within the land. - Lacina Tangnaqudo Onco
When Congress voted to open ANWR to oil and gas drilling, they issued an even more direct affront to the health and security of the Gwich’in tribe in Alaska. Recently, Lacina Tangnaqudo Onco, FCNL’s Congressional Advocate for our Native American Program, noted that the land designated for drilling in ANWR includes the breeding grounds of the porcupine caribou, upon which the livelihood of the Gwich’in people depends. She added that opening ANWR to drilling would also inflict spiritual damage by engendering the same cultural decimation to which the U.S. government has subjected Native Americans for centuries. Furthermore, by infringing upon the Gwich’in people’s access to ancestral lands and disturbing their ability to preserve traditional practices, Congress has disrupted the process of healing from intergenerational historic trauma.
An Assault on the Environment
Meanwhile, both the president’s executive action in Utah and Congress’ decision to open ANWR to drilling will do irreversible damage to the environment.
The natural, cultural, and historic treasures within Bear’s Ears National Monument represent an incomparable value to the American People. Selling out these natural treasures for a quick buck from oil and gas companies is morally bankrupt. - Scott Greenler, FCNL Program Assistant for Energy and the Environment
In addition to porcupine caribou, drillers will disturb the habitats of many other species that call ANWR home, such as musk oxen and polar bears. Their equipment and activity could result in habitat fragmentation that would have negative implications for dozens of other species. Arctic drilling elsewhere has also accelerated the melting of permafrost, which would release stored greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, undermine the structural integrity of the area, and could even release dormant viruses and bacteria that cause diseases against which people and animals have not been inoculated. Drilling in ANWR also incurs the same risks created by drilling anywhere, such as oil spills and exacerbating climate change.
Likewise, resource extraction in Utah’s national monuments would do irreparable harm to the environment. Beyond contributing to climate change by extracting more fossil fuels like natural gas, miners and drillers would build roads to transport fuel, people, and equipment, which would create habitat fragmentation, damaging the local ecology. Meanwhile, the Utah land, which past presidents preserved in part because of its stunning beauty and value to researchers studying the earth’s natural history, would crumble under the daily deluge of people, heavy equipment, and earth-shaking mining and drilling. Environmental hazards would be especially great, considering that drilling for natural gas and mining for uranium both create particularly toxic byproducts.
An Earth Restored is a Promise Honored
Communities of color often feel the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change first and worst. That’s especially true of Native American tribes like those in Utah and Alaska and elsewhere around the United States whose livelihoods and identity are tied closely to the land. When the administration or Congress enact policies like these that torture the land, those who depend upon that land for sustenance or who revere that land for the history, culture, and sacred significance that it holds lose out. When the U.S. government denies the reality of climate science, it readily condones damaging resource extraction on public land and fails to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate that bear down on Native Americans–from drought, wildfires, and floods in the Western U.S., to arctic melting in Alaska.
Fortunately, more people are finally waking up to the intersections between justice for the Earth and justice for Native Americans. From Standing Rock, to ANWR, to Bears Ears, conservationists and social justice activists are looking towards and listening to local Native American leaders, respecting their intentions for the land and joining their calls for the U.S. government to honor its promises regarding tribal sovereignty and environmental protection.
Congress and the administration may have created serious setbacks, but this process is far from over. Native American leaders have already issued legal challenges to the Bears Ears decision and are sure to do the same once the president officially signs drilling in ANWR into law. Meanwhile, a political movement is brewing to insist that the U.S. changes course, preserving the Earth to deliver justice for Native Americans. FCNL intends to be right there, speaking out for an Earth restored and lobbying for laws that do right by Native Americans.