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Action Rooted in Faith: Our Obligations to Protect America’s Arctic

Mar 4, 2024 | Blog

By Stuart Cohen, Alaska IPL

In Alaska, we are on the front lines of climate impacts and environmental destruction. Our joy in this spectacular place is gnawed at by the constant reports of melting glaciers, warming oceans, collapsing fisheries, and shorelines crumbling into the sea. 

Against this backdrop, any good news for America’s Arctic is a welcome reprieve. For that reason, we were extremely grateful for the Biden administration’s actions to protect vast areas of America’s Arctic. Last fall, President Biden canceled the last remaining oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His administration also began the process of protecting another 13 million acres in the Western Arctic from oil and gas development.

As a member of Alaska Interfaith Power and Light — a group organizing for climate action within religious congregations — we feel obligated to protect the earth and all who call it home from the increasing devastation of climate change. Our faith teaches us gratitude for the abundance we’ve been given, but also a deep responsibility to ensure this gift is passed down. Destroying creation is the greatest sacrilege that can occur, as it is a crime inflicted on all future generations.

The Western Arctic — where the Biden administration has proposed regulations to protect land in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska — contains irreplaceable landscapes serving as vital habitat for polar bears, muskox, Dall sheep, foxes, millions of migratory birds, and numerous caribou herds numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Just as these many creatures rely on this landscape for migration, nourishment, and raising their young, so do many of human beings depend on a thriving Arctic ecosystem to ensure the same for themselves.

The Gwich’in of Alaska and Canada, who have served as responsible stewards of this land since time immemorial, are now under threat. They make their home on and near the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which relies on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge for its survival. That herd is their food source and their sacrament. It connects them intimately to the land, their spiritual life, and countless generations that have preceded them. They call the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit: “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

But a study on caribou habitat near energy development in the Arctic from the USGS found that caribou don’t get “used” to oil development. They avoid it, even decades later, especially females who are pregnant or have new calves. Oil development on their calving grounds risks pushing the Porcupine herd into areas where there is less food and more predators. Survival and reproduction rates could easily begin a downward spiral, as they have for most other herds. 

Species like caribou and salmon are regularly destroyed in this way: methodically, step-by-step, (and usually with the support of politicians and businesses). Roads bring more hunters and harassment, habitat is degraded, changing climate reduces food or mobility, pollution wrecks food sources, and dams and other developments all combine to drive populations slowly but steadily to extinction. Now, Gwichin, Yupik and Inuit people that lived for millennia from the migrating salmon wait in vain for fish that have disappeared, or are struggling to hang on.

As faith leaders, we recognize that this kind of rampant destruction of spiritually and culturally significant land harms all of us. The Department of Interior must ensure maximum protections for the 13 million acres in the Western Arctic and stop oil development in the Arctic Refuge once and for all. We have a lot of work to do to preserve the beauty and bounty of this world we were given. As it says in the Talmud: ”We are not expected to complete the task, but we are not permitted to abandon it.” Our future inhabitants are counting on us.

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