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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 1:00 am

Hallowed ground

Arctic Refuge's coastal plain worthy of federal protection

Penny Gay

Penny Gay is a high school teacher in Ossian and member of Pleasantdale Church of the Brethren in Decatur. 

This month, a pair of bills was introduced in Congress that would designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. The bill introduced in the Senate includes 40 co-sponsors, though Indiana's senators are not on that list. The coastal plain is worthy of protection, and what these bills would protect is incredibly important for the people and wildlife that depend on the Arctic Refuge. Despite all of this, there are rumblings that the Trump administration plans to undo President Barack Obama's ban of drilling in Arctic waters and greenlight drilling in special and sensitive places like the Arctic Refuge.

Having had the opportunity to live in various Alaska communities and create relationships with the Gwich'in people has been a rewarding experience. My husband Bill and I are blessed to work with and support our Alaska native brothers and sisters, and we hope that Sens. Joe Donnelly and Todd Young will do the same and support wilderness for the coastal plain.

Bill and I have been traveling to Alaska every summer for years now, and as we prepare for our next journey to the Last Frontier state, I'm reminded of what makes that place so incredible. The first five years we spent in Arctic Village, on the southern boundary of the Arctic Refuge, and since then have been traveling to Circle, Alaska, just below the Arctic Circle. Our service there really began in 2003 when Bill visited Arctic Village on a learning tour. The friendships created there were born from his willingness to get a little dirty, helping to dress out and bring caribou meat back to the village. We have visited Arctic Village each year from then on to spend time with our new friends, and in 2007 we began to garden. A man in the village was to undergo surgery caused by a diet heavy on meat, and this prompted Bill to encourage them to grow some vegetables. He was told that it was too cold. Bill happily accepted the challenge.

Every day during our five summers in Arctic Village, we were able to look across the Chandalar River and view a small portion of the Arctic Refuge. You can't help but to be in awe of this overwhelmingly beautiful land. To this day I still wonder what lies beyond the mountains and rivers I could see.

You may question why I didn't cross the river and visit the Arctic Refuge. Well, with utmost respect for our Alaska Native brothers and sisters, the Gwich'in, it was never my place to enter their lands without an invitation. It is a spiritual place for them, through the lens of their traditional beliefs that are seamlessly interwoven with their Christian faith. (Today, more than 90 percent of the Gwich'in people are Episcopalian.) The coastal plain is the birthplace of the porcupine caribou herd, and to the Gwich'in, it is known as “Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit” – or the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

The Arctic Refuge is home to some of our most cherished species of wildlife, including polar bears, musk oxen and caribou. Others dependent on the Arctic Refuge include wolves, wolverines, moose, fox, black bear, brown bear, Dall sheep and more than 180 species of birds. Birds from every state in the nation migrate there to nest. Many of these species utilize the coastal plain as their annual birthing ground, safe in the lush tundra nestled against the Beaufort Sea. And preserving this wildlife is critical for the Gwich'in people, who rely on the coastal plain and its porcupine caribou herd for subsistence.

Protecting their way of life is a matter of basic human rights.

After spending time in Alaska and witnessing the dependence of our native Gwich'in friends on the land and animals, Bill and I fully support protection of the coastal plain as wilderness to preserve their culture and livelihood. These are public lands, belonging to all of us. We feel that all Americans can and should help in the conservation and protection of this diverse and unspoiled land.