The story of the Inupiat and the Arctic oil reserve

The health and welfare of Alaska's Native people is dependent on the responsible development of the resources on their lands and adjacent areas.  To escape the reservation mentality of the Natives of the lower 48, in many cases, they have done just that.

When former governor Jay Hammond became the part-time manager of the newly formed Bristol Bay Borough in 1965, he found that 97% of the payday from the fish caught within the borough's boundaries went to non-residents, mostly from outside Alaska.  As borough mayor, he eventually persuaded the voters to approve a 3% use tax for the harvest of these fish.

In his Tales of Alaska's Bush Rat Governor, Hammond describes the result.  "In 1965, the borough's budget totaled $35,000.  My part time salary was $8,000.  My full time secretary got $12,000.  By contrast, in 1988 the budget was $4.7 million!  The manager's salary was $80,000, there were 21 full-time employees and – you guessed it – property taxes have gone up!"  What's more, this area's Bristol Bay Native Corporation has paid $200 million in dividends to its 10,000 shareholders.

Alaska's Eskimo people, the Yupiks of western and southwestern Alaska and the Inupiats of the North Slope, have emphatically proven their ability to oversee responsible resource development.  Taking their cue from Hammond's Bristol Bay Borough, the Inupiats established the North Slope Borough in 1972 and have used their taxation of the oil industry to vastly improve the living conditions of its citizens.

The Inupiat Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) is the largest locally owned and operated business in Alaska, with 12,000 employees, almost 4,000 in Alaska.  ASRC has paid $915 million in dividends to its 13,000 shareholders and distributed over $1 billion to other Native corporations.  Seventy-five percent of its executives are Inupiat.

The Yupik NANA Native Corporation selected federal lands with known lead and zinc deposits and, in partnership with Teck Resources, developed the Red Dog mine.  In 2014 alone, Teck earned $143 million for NANA, $93.7 million of which was distributed to other Native corporations.   Over half of the mine workers are NANA shareholders, many residing in small villages in the region.

The Arctic Oil Reserve, also known as Area 1002 of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), is the most promising oil prospect in North America.  It was the state of Alaska's first choice when selecting federal lands at statehood but was needed by the military for Distant Early Warning Line radar stations.  The state took Prudhoe Bay as its second choice.

The northern section of ANWR in the Arctic Oil Reserve is indisputably the traditional home of the Inupiat.  Its only occupants are the 239 Inupiats of Kaktovik.  The Inupiats of the North Slope Borough favor the development of this field.  It has the potential to fill the Trans Alaska Pipeline, currently running at 25% of capacity.  All Alaskans would benefit from the responsible use of this barren and hostile land.

But such development is opposed by the Gwich'in, an Athabaskan tribe that occupies the area far to the south of the Arctic Oil Reserve in tiny Arctic Village, population 152.  They live a precarious subsistence lifestyle, aided by welfare and other government programs.  They are a caribou people, dependent on the Porcupine Caribou herd for sustenance.  They claim this herd could be harmed by development of the Arctic Oil Reserve.

This is a familiar argument to Alaskans.  Environmentalists initially blocked construction of the pipeline, claiming that it would hurt the caribou herds.  But when the pipeline was finally built, the caribou liked it, sometimes congregating around its warmth in winter.  Now there are more caribou in the area than there were before the pipeline was built.

Thanks to rapidly evolving technology, oil development in Alaska's arctic requires a rather small footprint.  The number of acres actually needed to drill and transport oil is miniscule.  With careful management, there will be no disruption of the Porcupine herd.  It will be a top priority for all involved.  The Gwich'in are being used by environmentalists to the detriment of all other Alaskans, Native and non-Native.

The Trump administration, and interior secretary Ryan Zinke, want America to be energy dominant, and to use our dominance for foreign policy ends.  The natural market for the oil of the Arctic Oil Reserve is energy-starved Japan, our closest ally in the Pacific.  The Japanese would pay a premium for a secure and stable source of oil and would buy every barrel available in Valdez.

For the people of Alaska, especially its Natives, and in the national security interest of the United States, the Arctic Oil Reserve should be opened up.  The American people need to hear the story of the capitalist Inupiat and to listen to them.  If it's anybody's oil, it's theirs.

Fritz Pettyjohn is a former Alaska state senator and House minority leader.  He blogs at

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