Gwich'in, 12 other groups suing U.S. over leasing program for Arctic wildlife refuge

A Gwich'in organization created to protect nearly 20 million acres of sacred, traditional land in Alaska, alon

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A Gwich'in organization created to protect nearly 20 million acres of sacred, traditional land in Alaska, along with 12 other conservation groups, is suing the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management after the Trump administration approved a plan to open a portion of that land to drilling for oil and gas earlier this month.

For decades, the Gwich'in Steering Committee has been fighting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska from oil and gas development because of its ecological significance, especially as one of the main calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd. According to the committee's website, "while 8.9 million acres are protected as wilderness, the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, the biological heart of [ANWR], remains vulnerable to industrial development."

The process has been deeply flawed from the beginning.- Karlin Itchoak, The Wilderness Society

Last week, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt approved a leasing program for oil and gas development on those acres of coastal plain, according to the Bureau of Land Management's website. It says the leasing program was required by law based on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which directs the secretary of the interior to create at least two leasing sales, at least 400,000 acres each, within the coastal plain of ANWR.

But in a press release Monday from the Trustees for Alaska — a group of lawyers that specifically leads cases to protect sacred land and wildlife — 13 conservation groups say the U.S.'s leasing program is illegal.

In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Associated Press)

"This process has been deeply flawed from the beginning, with the Department of the Interior cutting every possible corner in its rush to sell off the coastal plain to the highest bidders," said Karlin Itchoak, Alaska director for The Wilderness Society, in the release. 

The lawsuit charges the Bureau of Land Management with failing to comply with "laws governing agency processes and protecting land, water and wildlife," the release states.

'Changes purposes of ANWR management'

The Bureau of Land Management says the lease plan and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in 2017, "changes the purposes of ANWR management to include oil and gas development in a small but potentially energy rich area along the Arctic coast." The 1.5-million acres worth of coastal plain, is less than eight per cent of the entirety of ANWR.

But the groups filing the lawsuit, which includes the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, says that doesn't matter. 

"[The Bureau of Management] rushed its analysis, curtailed public participation, shortchanged Indigenous input and concerns, and omitted science and facts," said Brook Brisson, senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, in the press release.

"It's no surprise that the outcome is a leasing program that flagrantly breaks the law and fails to respect and protect human rights, the public trust, and one of our nation's most iconic public lands."

The Bureau of Management has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, the release states.