Seeking Refuge (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)

Seeking Refuge (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)

Originally published in Trail Runner Magazine March 2021.

In May of 2019, I ran 37 miles across Joshua Tree National Park, a desert landscape in Southern California. It was a perfect final long run in 80-degree temperatures one month before toeing the line at California’s 100-mile Western States Endurance Run on June 29th.

While driving back home to Colorado, I got a call from the rock climber and fellow Patagonia ambassador Tommy Caldwell. We’d been brainstorming ways to collaborate on climate-change advocacy recently, so I wasn’t surprised when he called. But what he said made me pull over.

He invited me to go up to Fort Yukon, Alaska, where the Gwich’in Steering Committee—a nonprofit that advocates for Gwich’in, the people who have lived in the region since before the U.S. and Canada existed—was hosting a summit about the impacts of climate change and oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an untrammeled national treasure nearly the size of South Carolina on Alaska’s North Slope. He told me we could learn from Gwich’in how climate change and potential drilling impacts are changing their way of life. Plus, he said, we could do an expedition in the Refuge.

This all sounded incredible. Of course I wanted to learn from people living in the Arctic and explore one of the wildest and remote areas in North America. But the catch was we would have to leave in two weeks, getting back just a few days before the start of Western States. There would be very little running during the trip, so I wasn’t sure how this would affect my race. The break in training probably wouldn’t help, but I wanted to go, to see for myself what was at stake.

Earlier that year, I testified before the Bureau of Land Management against all oil leasing in the Refuge. The Gwich’in, the people most impacted by climate change and potential drilling impacts, were mostly ignored in the Environmental Impact Statement on oil and gas leasing on the Refuge’s Coastal Plain, as reported by dozens of environmental nonprofits and Indigenous groups.

I objected to a provision to 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that had opened up the Coastal Plain to oil and gas leasing, which was passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. At the time, virtually no protections existed to permanently protect the Coastal Plain from drilling. That holds true today.

With all this in mind, the decision was easy. I told Tommy I was in.

Photos clockwise from top L: Tommy, Luke and Clare inspect thawing permafrost in the Arctic tundra along the Jago River. Community members in Gwich’yaa Zhee meet at the Summit. Arctic flowers in bloom. Caribou in view from our campsite along the Jago River, Arctic Wildlife National Refuge. All photos: Austin Siadak. 

Living Off the Land
Two weeks later, after 24 hours of travel from Colorado, including a flight in a bush plane, I was sitting in a community gathering place in Gwich’yaa Zhee, the Gwich’in name for Fort Yukon. Roughly 150 miles northeast of Fairbanks, it’s one of 15 Gwich’in communities spread across northeast Alaska and Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories. Even though on the Arctic Circle, it was hot, nearing the summer equinox. The crowd included mostly Gwich’in, from youngsters to elders who traveled from other villages, lawyers, scientists, other Indigenous leaders, journalists and filmmakers. I sat near the rest of my crew, which included Tommy of Estes Park, Colorado, the photographer Austin Siadak of Seattle, Washington, and the trail runner Luke Nelson of Pocatello, Idaho. We listened to community members describe how the changing climate had affected their livelihoods.

Stanley Edwin, a Gwich’in scientist with a PhD in physics, said, “Our food is our medicine, not only for our survival, it’s also what keeps us healthy. When you start changing the animals, you start changing us.”

Gwich’in live off hunted Porcupine caribou and other animals, including moose, geese, ducks, Chinook (King) salmon and whitefish, stored in their freezers, throughout the year, so any threat to animal populations and migrations is a direct threat to Gwich’in survival.

“If they go, we go,” said Chuck Peter, a hunter, fisher and father, of the animals he hunts.

Peter said climate change is already affecting their livelihoods because it’s changing the fishery and where and when animals migrate. “It seems like we’re always in a battle over our hunting and fishing rights. The Yukon River is drying up—usually in June, it’d be bank to bank and here you see all these mud bars showing right now. Somewhere in the headwaters, the water is changing,” said Peter. “It does something to a community when you can’t fish. So depressing, no reason to go to the river. King salmon are so important.”

We were just yards away from the Yukon River. Gwich’yaa Zhee sits on its northernmost banks. We all turned our heads around; the riverbanks were indeed all mud.

Darrell Vent Sr., a hunter and fisher from another village, Koyukuk, also spoke of changes to the Yukon, “Where I’m from we have an erosion problem. As of right now we have five houses that have to be moved back from the riverbank because it’s eroding so fast. Climate change is affecting the permafrost, so our village is just dropping into the water.” Indeed, studies have shown climate-change-caused permafrost thaw and late-fall freezes and early spring thaws in the rivers in the Yukon river watershed have contributed to increased erosion along riverbanks.

Vent Sr. added, “Our fish spawning grounds are not in the same place as they were before. They had to move, because the water temperature is not right.” Ecologists have documented that Chinook salmon are experiencing heat stress due to warming temperatures, which is contributing to declining populations, corroborating the many observations about declining salmon populations made by fishers like Vent Sr. and others at the summit.

Even though I’d learned that temperatures in the Arctic are warming two to three times more than the rest of the world due to human-caused climate change, this was the first time I’d heard what this means for people who live here.

When Vent Sr. finished speaking, he calmly waved his arms to the surrounding forest and river, “We depend on this food. We don’t have another store. This is our store.”

I saw firsthand in Gwich’yaa Zhee that packaged goods are not cheap, as most goods have to be flown in. Gas is prohibitively expensive at $6 per gallon. A bag of Cheetos was $10. A pallet of bottled water, $51. The average cost of a gallon of milk across all Gwich’in villages is $13. For these communities, their ability to eat on a daily basis is intrinsically tied to a healthy environment with stable animal populations and migrations.

Gwich’yaa Zhee flanking the Yukon River (Ft. Yukon, Alaska) June 2019, Austin Siadak. 

We Are Caribou People

Speakers at the summit also discussed the imminent threat of an oil lease sale on the Refuge’s Coastal Plain permitted through Title II of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. As if climate change impacts weren’t enough, drilling would make things worse, particularly for the Porcupine caribou, as their calving ground is the Coastal Plain.

Throughout the summit, Gwich’in repeatedly iterated that the Coastal Plain is their most sacred land. It was clear that every single Gwich’in speaker spiritually and physically depended on the Porcupine caribou, as it was mentioned multiple times, often with a hand over the heart, “We are caribou people.”

A subspecies of caribou only found in Alaska and northwest Canada, Porcupine caribou migrate up to 1,500 miles each year from the Coastal Plain calving grounds, over the Brooks Mountain Range to south of the Refuge, reaching villages like Gwich’yaa Zhee—the longest land migration route of all land mammals on Earth. Drilling in the Coastal Plain could, according to several scientific studies, impact Porcupine caribou migrations, as it’s been documented that caribou avoid areas within six kilometers of oil wells and roads.

Examples of oil-drilling impacts are seen just 100 miles west of the Refuge is North America’s largest oil field, Prudhoe Bay, at over 200,000 acres. Studies there have shown impacts including flooding, roads and infrastructure that prevent water runoff to the Beaufort Sea and air pollution. These are harbingers for potential drilling in the Refuge. Whether population size of the Porcupine caribou herd would diminish due to Coastal Plain oil drilling is still unclear, since there is not enough research.

“Our responsibility is to protect the Porcupine caribou,” said Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We’ve vowed to always take care of each other. And now their calving grounds are being threatened by the 2017 oil leases in the Refuge.”

The issue of drilling in the Refuge is contentious elsewhere in Alaska. The oil industry is the biggest private-sector driver of Alaska’s economy, and oil revenue is expected to supply over 70 percent of the state’s unrestricted general funds over the next ten years, according to Alaska’s Department of Revenue. But these funds are at the whim of the global oil market, making the Alaska state budget vulnerable to abrupt revenue drops.

Supporters of drilling often tout the importance of oil and gas jobs in a state with limited economic opportunities. But the Gwich’in don’t want those jobs. There’s no evidence they would benefit economically, according to TK. They don’t even benefit from reduced gas prices, even though oil from Prudhoe Bay flows through the nearby Trans Alaska Pipeline.

“We can’t even go to Fish Camp [another Gwich’in village] anymore because of the price of gas. Yet, we have this pipeline 150-miles down the road. How crazy is that?” said Mike Peters, Second Chief of Gwich’yaa Zhee, about the Trans Alaska Pipeline.

Unlike Gwich’in, Iñupiaq—the Indigenous people who live in villages even farther north than Gwich’in—have a more complicated stance on oil development because many Iñupiaq have shares in the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which manages oil development in the Prudhoe Bay area. Depending on oil production and the global market, individual Iñupiaq shareholders receive checks of a few-thousand to 10-thousand dollars per year.

Gwich’in, on the other hand, do not participate in the Alaska Native Corporation system like other tribes, which means they do not have shares in, nor receive checks from any Alaska Native Corporations. This is because they chose to keep ownership of their land instead of participating in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. This is a decision Gwich’in are proud of, as they’ve been able to maintain their traditional way of life, unfettered by estimates of potential future profit from more oil development.

The Coastal Plain

After the summit, we were lucky to see the sacred land and Porcupine caribou ourselves. Tommy, Austin, Luke and I spent a week traveling through the Refuge, starting just north of the Brooks Range and ending in the Coastal Plain, almost to the Beaufort Sea. We hiked into the snow-capped, sharp mountains, boulder hopping with 60-pound packs. I was out of my element—this was mountaineering, but I just tried to keep up with the group and not fall down the mountain. Between jumping across large boulders, postholing in knee-deep snow and reflecting on the summit, I rarely even thought about Western States coming up.

“This trip is no longer casual,” said Luke after one particularly harrowing river crossing where we had to jump across a raging stream of glacier runoff cutting down a steep scree-field. After two days, we summited the second highest peak in the Brooks Range, Mount Hubley at 8,917 feet. We then hiked down the McCall Glacier and packrafted the Jago River into the Coastal Plain for the rest of the trip.

Thanks to the all-day light, we got into a rhythm of 26-hour days, so we could travel more miles and observe more of our surroundings. On our last night around 2 a.m. deep in the Coastal Plain, we made camp and prepared dinner. Five hundred or so caribou grazed on purple and white flowering tundra plants across the Jago River, just a few hundred yards away. A pink hue covered the sky, making the caribou glow. This scene was so pristinely void of any visible human development, but for the melting permafrost that cut wide gouges into the tundra nearby. We knew this exposed permafrost was from the anthropogenic burning of fossil fuels, but no one wanted to speak of such depressing facts in this perfect moment. We sat in awestruck silence.

Clockwise from Top L: Mike Peters sharing information about the Refuge to Clare, Tommy and Luke. Gwich’yaa Zhee community sign. (Austin Siadak) Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, advocating for permanent protection of the Refuge in Washington D.C. with other Indigenous leaders. (Keri Oberly) 

Call Your Reps

Thousands of miles and one week later, I was jumping up and down on the start line at Western States. Hundreds of headlamps lit the dark morning. I was smiling. My goal was to finish the race, but the outcome didn’t matter. I viewed the race as a privilege. It was a gift to spend all day running on beautiful trails with my friends. I ran with the Gwich’in in mind. With the heaviness of the challenges they’re facing. With the responsibility to come home and share what we learned and saw.

I ran for over 17 hours and not a mile went by without thinking of the Gwich’in. While cruising down the Cal Street section, around mile 65, I encountered a bear cub. It tumbled into the trail and then rambled off, fast enough that my pacer Jeff and I didn’t even slow down. I took it as a sign that the animals of the Refuge were cheering me on. Even after winning a very close race, the biggest win of my career, my mind was stuck on the Arctic. While sitting on the finish line interview couch, with a hoarse voice, I implored the people cheering in the stands to “call your reps” to support an upcoming Arctic bill. Maybe they, too, would become Arctic allies.

I hoped people would call their representatives to support a bill called the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act that would prohibit oil leasing in the Coastal Plain. Thanks to many concerned representatives and massive grassroots action by the Gwich’in, Indigenous leaders and also outdoor enthusiasts largely from the lower 48, the bill passed in the House or Representatives. This wasn’t a surprise—a 2019 poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 67 percent of registered voters in the U.S. oppose drilling the Refuge. Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled Senate killed Senator Ed Markey’s companion bill, which had 33 co-sponsors, to permanently protect the Refuge.

Despite widespread popularity, Refuge protection remains in limbo today. Even considering that in 2020 the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called for an investigation into the U.S. Government over plans to drill in the Refuge. The letter highlights that planned oil development by the U.S. was conducted without “adequate consultation with Gwich’in indigenous peoples, despite the serious harm such extractive activities could allegedly cause.” The letter warns that the drilling could encroach on sacred sites, reduce food security, increase health risks and increase violence against Indigenous women due to the arrival of industry workers. The Trump administration never responded to the call for an investigation.

Today and the Future

This year, on January 6, 2021, the federal government held a lease sale for extraction companies to bid on tracts in the Refuge. Only two small companies and the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority bid on tracts covering roughly 30 percent of the Coastal Plain. This netted less than $15 million for the U.S. Treasury, a laughable amount compared to the billion dollars once predicted by oil-industry supporters. No major oil companies bid on leases, which was seen as a major success by the groundswell of grassroots support for protection of the Refuge. Even all six major U.S. banks have refused to fund any Arctic drilling, also thanks to public pressure.

But the oil industry’s relative disinterest in the Refuge could be short-lived. Even though just hours after taking office in an Executive Order, President Joe Biden put a temporary moratorium on all oil-and-gas leasing in the Refuge, the day prior, the handful of leases sold under the Trump Administration were finalized.

In order to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife refuge, Congress will need to pass legislation, and courts will have to decide pending lawsuits involved with the lease sale.

The fight to protect the Arctic Refuge is like a 100-mile race. The catch is we don’t know what mile we’re at—we could be in that stressful and exhausting stretch between 80 miles and the finish for years. It’s impossible to know how current lawsuits and future elections will play out.

What we do know is that trail runners can play a role. As with so many controversies of extraction versus land protection, the best way to help is to show up when it matters. Stay informed and urge our Congress members to act. Call them. Dedicate runs to the Arctic. If we can run an ultra, we can stand up for our fellow humans who depend upon the land, and to protect one of the last wildest enclaves on earth.

Clare Gallagher is an ultrarunner and climate advocate living in Boulder, Colorado. She works for Patagonia as a global sports activist.