Gwich'in: 'We deserve a fair fight'
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Although Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has admitted her department made a "mistake" when it provided erroneous answers to Congress about drilling in the Arctic, don't count on the Gwich'in Nation to let her off the hook so easily.

The Athabaskan tribe, whose 10,000 members are spread across Alaska and Canada, has opposed opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. Fearing drilling would destroy their entire way of life, a group of elders several years ago convened a committee to respond to the threat.

Since then, the tribe has fended off attempts to allow exploration in the refuge, home to the Porcupine caribou herd on which the tribe bases its culture. Tribal leaders and representatives had a key ally in the Clinton administration, with former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt being among the chief opponents to drilling.

With President Bush in charge, the political atmosphere has changed. To the surprise of environmentalists and their mostly Democrat allies, the House has approved drilling and the issue is moving forward in the Senate.

But it hasn't changed so much that the Gwich'in won't back down from the battle. Which makes Norton's latest action all the more dishonorable, said the coordinator for the Gwich'in Steering Committee.

"She makes decisions the impact people and lands and I don't think she should be allowed to apologize and it's forgotten," said Faith Gemmill.

"We deserve a fair fight on this issue."

The latest controversy centers on a formal letter to Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska). Although sent after the Democratic takeover of the Senate, Murkowski had asked Norton four questions about oil development as chairman of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

To respond to the committee, Norton had U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a purely scientific bureau that oversees the refuge system, prepare the answers. But by the time the responses left Norton's desk, the data was changed by two aides, giving it a more political and pro-drilling slant.

Among the changes was a statement claiming that the Porcupine caribou herd had not calved in the area of ANWR targeted for development for 11 out of the past 18 years. The opposite is true.

Of the discrepancy, Norton said in a speech last Friday that her department "did make a mistake." She told a group of environmental journalists in Oregon she would "take steps to clarify and correct that."

Norton's press secretary Mark Pfeifle did not return comment on exactly what Norton would do to address the dispute. For Gemmill, though, the transgression didn't come as as surprise.

"It seems like they would go any lengths to push forward development and even falsify information," Gemmill said of drilling supporters.

Democrats in the Senate have so far held up consideration of an energy bill that could include drilling. Citing a need to focus on America's response to terrorism, an energy package was pulled from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, now headed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)

President Bush has since urged the chamber to act on the issue. Republicans are eager to debate drilling, although Majority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) says they have to break a filibuster with 60 votes to move it forward.

Whatever the response, Gemmill said her people have one simple request.

"One thing that can be said for our people, irregardless of our position, we're still going to have to go on representing ourselves in a good way and we're going to have to do this in an honorable way," she said.

"We think we deserve the same from our opposition."

Norton met with Gwich'in leaders during a visit to Arctic Village in June. Although she was urged repeatedly not to support drilling, she said she still believes development could be done in an environmentally responsible way.

Get the Documents:
What FWS Said [PDF] | What Norton Said [PDF] | Comparison

Relevant Links:
Gwich'in Steering Committee -
Oil Issues in ANWR, US Fish and Wildlife -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pro-Development site -

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