Seeking Refuge: Drilling in the ANWR

Jordan Scott

The Gwich’in creation story tells that long ago, the Gwich’in and the caribou were one. As they separated into two beings, they became relatives and made an agreement. The land would sustain the caribou and the caribou would sustain the people. They would each keep a piece of the other’s heart within themselves. In that way their lives and well-being would be forever connected.[1]

I vividly remember the fall of 2020 when then-President Trump opened part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. While consistent with Trump’s aims, this decision was a shock to many who thought the land was a protected area. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is composed of almost 20 million acres of land historically belonging to the Gwich’in people.[2] The Gwich’in, or the “people of the land”, are an indigenous group that have been residing in the area that is currently Alaska and northwest Canada for the past 20,000 years.[3] This land they rely on has been designated by the US government as protected because the habitat is crucial for the Porcupine caribou, polar bears and numerous other threatened species.[4] However, the protected status of this land is tenuous. While there seem to be numerous economic benefit to permitting oil extraction on this land, the cultural and human rights of the Gwich’in people should not be violated for potential profit. 

President Eisenhower first created an Arctic Refuge in 1960, but President Jimmy Carter formalized this land as the ANWR in its current form by signing the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980.[5] While developing clear guidelines for its management during his time in office, the final approval for permanent Refuge status was deferred to Congress, which never approved the official designation. In the following 44 years, multiple battles, both political and legal, have arisen. During some presidencies, exploratory oil drilling has been allowed, in others oil drilling contracts have been sold and legitimized by the government.[6] Until Congress passes the Arctic Refuge Protection Act (the bill in its current form), all moratoriums and bans established by the President or Department of Interior can be easily overturned. 

Ideally, Congress would pass the Arctic Refuge Protection Act, which would cease drilling contracts and prohibit potentially drilling activity, but this overlooks a major aspect of this conflict. The Gwich’in community, who have been living on this land for thousands of years before the US or Canada even existed, have been largely excluded from this conversation.[7] While legislation is necessary, management procedures in this legislation need to recognize the rights and role of Indigenous groups on this land.

The most contentious areas in these land disputes are known as the coastal plains. These coastal plains are the rearing grounds for Porcupine caribou young, but also the area with the most fossil fuel drilling potential.[8] The fuel in these coastal plains is estimated to be worth $251 billion in profit after extraction and to provide 7.06 billion barrels, or enough to supply the US for an entire year.[9] However, this land’s status as a caribou hotspot means that the Gwich’in people have long used this land as primary subsistence hunting ground to which they have strong cultural ties: this land is often referred to as “the sacred place where life began”.[10] Development and extraction in this area would not only destroy this fragile ecosystem, but would threaten the cultural rights and food sovereignty of the Gwich’in people.

In an era of Justice40 and an increased national focus on environmental justice, it is impossible to ignore that cultural rights are human rights. With the diminished capacity to control the land with which their identity is intertwined, the Gwich’in people are not merely facing an attack on their lands, but also on their existence. For a community already facing the mounting pressures from climate change, this fight threatens to decimate their lifestyle and people.[11]

Formally recognizing the protected status of the ANWR in Congress would only be the first step towards restitution. Restitution for Indigenous groups, is a multifaceted legal, societal and cultural reconciliation that would include the transfer of power, and potentially land, to Indigenous groups marking a significant shift towards Indigenous sovereignty.[12] The ANWR should be designated an Indigenous or Tribal land for governance by the Gwich’in and other Indigenous peoples. For 20,000 years, the land was collectively managed by these people with no threats from extractive industries and should be returned to them for protection of their cultural and human rights. The US and Alaskan governments have a poor history with oil drilling as Alaska has contributed more than 18 billion barrels of oil and oil is the largest source of unrestricted revenue for the state, often due to tax breaks and extractive opportunities that have destroyed communities and lands.[13] The Gwich’in people have been resisting this pressure for decades and their connection to the land would protect it from potential drilling pressures. As Lorraine Netro, Gwich’in elder says, “We are not going to sacrifice our lives, we are not going to compromise.”[14]

[1] “Indigenous Peoples”, Protect the Arctic (2021),ñupiat.

[2] “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: America’s Largest and Northern Most Wildlife Refuge”, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2024),

[3] “About the Gwich’in”, Gwich’in Steering Committee (2024),

[4] “Regulatory Tracker: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge- Oil and Gas Development”, Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program (2023),

[5] Brian Palmer and Nicole Greenfield, “The Long, Long Battle for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”, National Resource Defense Council (June 2022),

[6] Leah Donahey, “A Brief History of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”, Alaska Wilderness League,

[7] Joe Spring, “’The Refuge’ Profiles the Fight to Save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge From Drilling”, Sierra Club Magazine (November 2016),

[8] “Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”, U.S. Department of Interior: Bureau of Land Management (2023),

[9] Matthew J. Kotchen and Nicholas E. Berger, “Should we drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? An economic perspective”, Energy Policy, Volume 35, Issue 9 (September 2007),

[10] Lorraine Netro, “Indigenous Peoples”, Protect the Arctic (2021),ñupiat.

[11] “Gwich’in Nation and Arctic Policies”, The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at University of Washington: Canadian Studies Center for Arctic and International Relations (June 2019),

[12] “Land Return for Tribal Restitution”, County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (2024),

[13] “Alaska’s Oil and Gas Industry”, Alaska Resource Development Council (2023),

[14] Sara Connors, “Gwich’in Nation Launches Lawsuit in Effort to Stop Oil Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”, APTN National News (September 2020),

3 thoughts on “Seeking Refuge: Drilling in the ANWR

  1. This blog post caught my attention from the very first sentence! I think this topic expands very well on what we’ve talked about in class recently and the themes we’ve been highlighting all semester. More specifically, I think this post perfectly addresses the tension and controversy that has become inherent to land management in the US. I completely agree that cultural rights are human rights. This exacerbates the need to put Indigenous groups and native peoples at the forefront of land management, especially their own. I’m extremely interested in how cultural differences shape various approaches to conservation and land management. The connectedness and mutual respect that the Gwich’in people have for their land is something that I believe society has much to learn from. I was shocked to hear about their exclusion from discussions revolving around the Arctic Refugee Protection Act, which mirrors the many other instances we’ve reviewed in class that have failed to include the affected groups as part of the problem-solving process. This post reminded me about a book that I read for another class, called Welp, about cultural biases on Indigenous residents of the Arctic. It discussed the idea of extractive research, in which research conducted on Indigenous or marginalized groups fails to include them as part of the process, even if the research is intended to benefit them. Overall, I think this blog post is super well-written and informative! Thanks for sharing!

  2. This blog is so relevant to many of the topics we have been discussing in class recently, including land management and protecting endangered species. I wish there was an easier way to put accurate monetary values and benefits on habitat preservation for threatened species and maintaining cultural ties to land because, unfortunately, that is what politicians/policymakers and the public seem to respond to and drilling is easy to put a monetary benefit on. It is also unfortunate but not surprising that the Gwich’in people have not been included in conversations despite the fact that these decisions greatly affect their livelihoods. The quote from the elder was very powerful because I agree that in this situation there is no way to compromise, any amount of drilling would be detrimental to this community’s well-being and home. Taking land from a group of people that has inhabited it and cared for it for over 20,000 years is simply wrong and not worth any economic benefit that might result from drilling. I wonder if stories such as this one were shared more widely, perhaps via social media, if there would be enough of a public response to halt drilling on indigenous lands and to force restitution for those whose cultural and human rights have already been violated for decades. I can tell you know a lot about this topic, Jordan! Very well done!

  3. I really enjoy your emphasis on the Gwich’in people and their historical connection with the land. Oftentimes, while environmental science is generally aware of cultural issues, they can often be overlooked as people look to just the land and not the story behind it. The role the Gwich’in people play in the ANWR should absolutely take precedence in the discussion of how it should be managed and protected for future generations. As you mentioned, they are the stewards who are most knowledgeable about this, so I agree designating the land as a Tribal or Indigenous land would be a great step. I am unsure on the feasibility of that move considering how much oil exists in ANWR, but I respect their commitment to the land and refusal to back down.

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