THE Gwich'in Indians, who prominently oppose oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), have repeatedly invited such work on their own Alaska lands.That disclosure was made recently by pro-development forces, who had hoped to play it last month like a trump card in Senate energy legislation debates. Those debates never took place because a successful filibuster by anti-development senators kept the bill, which would have opened ANWR to oil companies, from coming to the Senate floor. However, an energy bill could be the first order of business when the Senate reconvenes in January, energy committee staffers say, because majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine has made it a priority. ANWR is a South Carolina-sized expanse of northeastern Alaska. Its coastal plain may contain the last significant undiscovered oil reserves in the United States.
Caribou calving ground That plain is also the spring calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd, named for the nearby river. The herd is an important source of food for some of the 7,000 Gwich'in Indians that live outside ANWR in 15 villages in eastern Alaska and western Canada. Oil exploration and development in ANWR would disrupt calving, the Gwich'in contend. "It's not even a serious scientific question anymore," says Robert Childers, an environmental consultant who assists Gwich'in efforts to protect the 180,000 caribou. Mr. Childers says the smaller central arctic herd, which coexists with oil development activity at Prudhoe Bay, has had a "calving failure" three years in a row. But David Klein, considered to be Alaska's eminent authority on caribou, isn't ready to blame the oil activity that has gone on for 20 years at Prudhoe. The central arctic herd has actually increased from 3,000 to 18,000 animals in that time, and may have simply reached the limit of the available food. It will take two years of study to know, the University of Alaska wildlife biologist says. Still, in a full-page ad in the New York Times last month, the Gwich'in asked: "Must we now die for six months of oil?" referring to the period in which the United States consumes the amount of oil that ANWR may hold. "Help us keep the oil companies out of our Arctic homes," the ad urged. Inupiat Eskimos, who have benefited from oil activity at Prudhoe and who stand to receive royalties from land they own in the coastal plain, took Gwich'in concerns seriously until two months ago. They had sought without success an opportunity to visit the Gwich'in and make a case that oil activity wouldn't harm the caribou, says Brenda Itta-Lee, an Inupiat leader. Then the Inupiat had their law firm investigate a rumor that the Gwich'in had engaged in oil exploration activities for years, Ms. Itta-Lee sa ys. Public records showed that those Gwich'in who live in the Venetie Reserve had leased all of their 1.8 million acres, including the caribou wintering grounds around Arctic Village, to an oil company in 1980. Venetie Gwich'in control the mineral rights in their reserve. Other Gwich'in in Alaska hold shares in Doyon Ltd., a native corporation that owns the mineral rights to other land in central Alaska and which has a drilling company subsidiary. As recently as last December, Exxon was evaluating the oil potential of Doyon land with the enthusiastic assistance of Gwich'in villagers from Arctic Village, Venetie, and elsewhere. Stuart Gustafson, an exploration representative with Exxon, says the results were negative, "much to the dismay of the villagers. I was the poor guy who had to go around and tell them we weren't going to drill a well." An outraged Itta-Lee announced in mid-November, two weeks after the Senate filibuster, that the Gwich'in had misled Congress by failing to inform it of their leasing activities. She scoffed at their "unfounded 'caribou' allegations," noting that the Inupiat have more reason to protect the caribou because they rely more on subsistence activities for food than the Gwich'in do. And she questioned Gwich'in concern for the herd, as evidenced by the scant two sentences dealing with the animals' welfare in the 20-page lease agreement signed by the Venetie Gwich'in. "The permits we issued to the oil companies are a heck of a lot more tough," Itta-Lee says. In Canada, she noted, Gwich'in Indians had just negotiated an agreement by which they would acquire mineral rights to land within the Porcupine caribou herd's range. "This is very, very hypocritical," she says of Gwich'in oil activities. In fact, "a tremendous amount" of mineral surveys have been conducted in the Yukon Flats area south of ANWR since World War II by major oil companies and the federal government, says Don Wright, a former oil consultant who drafted the 1980 Venetie lease. Childers insists that, regardless of the terms of the lease, all exploration was conducted on the south of the reserve, away from the herd-migration path. The exploration work consisted of a seismic survey using the Poulter technique, in which five-pound charges of dynamite placed on sticks are detonated several at a time. Although the charges make noise and flatten brush, they won't harm a tree as close as 30 inches away. By 1985, he says, the Venetie Gwich'in had become disillusioned with oil exploration, fearing that it would harm the population of ground squirrels, muskrat, and fish. Doyon Ltd., most of whose shareholders are Koyukon Indians, pressured the Venetie Gwich'in to lease land to Exxon in 1987, but the Gwich'in managed not to do so. The Venetie have no active leases at the moment, Childers says. But he says he can't be sure they wouldn't participate in oil exploration in the future, as the Indians are interested in economic development that will let them remain in their villages. In any case, the Gwich'in lands aren't as important to the herd as the coastal plain, he says.
Link to environmentalists? The Inupiat have also raised questions about links between the Gwich'in and environmental groups. How, for instance, does Gwich'in spokeswoman Sarah James get the money to travel so much? Or how did the Gwich'in pay for the Times ad and for billboard and subway advertising? Childers responds that the money for the ads were donated by an individual whom he identified as a well-known executive who sold a prominent retail business last year.
Gwich'in defense The donor was put in touch with the Gwich'in by the advertising agency that ended up creating the ad campaign. As for Ms. James's travel, the Gwich'in Steering Committee says that the organizers of the conferences she attends, such as one in France this week, pay her expenses. The Gwich'in Steering Committee in Anchorage does rent space from the Wilderness Society, one of the four main environmental groups opposing drilling in ANWR. Childers says the rent is the cheapest the committee could find, but that that is the extent of the relationship between the two. In fact, he adds, the Gwich'in have resisted pressure to join the Alaska Coalition, which groups environmental opposition to developing ANWR. The Gwich'in view ANWR as a native rights issue. Mr. Wright, the oil consultant, knows something about native rights. As president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, in 1971 the Gwich'in native negotiated the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the law that created native corporations holding title to land and mineral rights. ve watched all of the development in the state since 1929 - highways, railroads, military, pipelines, oil exploration," Wright says. Developing ANWR could definitely harm caribou calving if done improperly, he says. But he says exploration should proceed - cautiously - and that the Gwich'in are entitled to full information.