Inupiats press for oil drilling in ANWR
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Despite owning a corporation that rakes in nearly $1 billion in revenues, Inupiat Eskimos need the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) opened up to oil and gas drilling so they can "put bread on the table," an Alaska Native executive said on Thursday.

The diverse set of businesses owned by Arctic Slope Regional Corp. are not enough to provide about 8,000 Inupiat shareholders -- particularly those who live on Alaska's North Slope -- with security, asserted corporation vice president Richard Glenn. Oil and gas development are vital to the survival of the Inupiat, and necessary to protect Inupiat culture, he said.

"To live on the North Slope, you have to depend on the economy that exists on the North Slope," said Glenn. "A subsidiary effort [elsewhere] helps the corporation's bottom line. It might put a few people to work."

"But it's not going to put bread on the table."

Call to increase economic opportunity for Native Americans are a dime a dozen. But supporting Arctic Slope's position is Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, who at a press conference yesterday said the Inupiat "cannot provide for their families or their future" unless Congress allows ANWR to be developed.

Yet -- in the eyes of Republican allies in the Senate -- there is little chance that will happen soon. Led by Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), who announced he is running for governor of Alaska this week, they lashed out at Majority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) for not allowing drilling to be debated on the Senate floor.

Mired in the political dispute are Arctic Slope and Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, a Native village corporation, which both own rights to about 92,000 acres of land within ANWR's coastal plain -- the area targeted for development. The rights were conveyed through a land deal negotiated by former Interior Secretary James Watt before he resigned from the Reagan administration amid controversy in 1983.

But as Norton noted, the Inupiat corporations cannot develop the land without Congressional approval. A provision in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 prevents any drilling -- a prohibition Norton's press secretary Mark Pfeifle called "a travesty."

That protection, however, is what environmentalists and the Gwich'in Nation, an Athabaskan tribe spread across Alaska and Canada, are trying to uphold. Adam Kolton, whose Alaska Wilderness League is the target of an I.R.S. complaint by Kaktovik, discounted the notion that Arctic Slope's future was dependent on ANWR.

"Ninety-five percent of Alaska's North Slope is available for oil exploration right now," he said yesterday. "Many of these [lands] are generating revenues that are benefiting Arctic Slope Regional Corp."

Gwich'in leaders also reiterated their stance against drilling, Fearing it would destroy the Porcupine caribou herd on which their culture is based, they said the economic benefits cited by Norton and the Inupiats don't always materialize.

"There is still a high unemployment rate in Alaska, especially rural Alaska, even with all the new oil fields in the North Slope," said Sarah James, a Gwich'in spokesperson. "Our job as human beings is to protect our natural environment for our future generations, as indigenous people always have."

Glenn believes his people are already doing that. He said Inupiats have opposed development projects and have enacted regulations to protect the environment.

"We know there's a balance that can be struck between stewardship -- which we support -- and resource exploration and development," said Glenn. "We walk that balance every day."

Murkowski plans to introduce his Arctic drilling package as a bill but also will try to tack it onto existing measures. The House approved drilling in the refuge in August.

Relevant Links:
Arctic Slope Regional Corp -
Annual Financial Report, ASRC -
Gwich'in Steering Committee -
Oil Issues in ANWR, US Fish and Wildlife -
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pro-Development site -

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