Outdoor activist hikes into Alaska refuge debate
Dudley Edmondson is joining an expedition by people of color to support the Gwich'in tribe.
DULUTH -- A nationally renowned photographer, videographer, birder and Black outdoor activist will be part of a seven-person expedition to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska this month on a 10-day trek to draw attention to the plight of Indigenous people there trying to stop oil drilling on their homeland.
Duluth’s Dudley Edmondson will join the mission spearheaded by the Portland-based nonprofit Love is King and the Alaska Wilderness League.
The league has partnered with the Gwich'in people who have lived in the region for millennia and who have worked to turn back attempts by oil companies to drill on wild lands supposedly set aside to protect caribou, musk ox, grizzly bear and the Gwich’in way of life.
While Edmondson has toured wild places across the U.S., including several Alaska trips, this will be his deepest dive into an expedition aimed at social justice and environmental protection activism.
“It’s some rugged terrain, above the Arctic Circle, and I know there are grizzlies there. Caribou, too … and lots of mosquitoes,” said Edmondson, who leaves for the trip July 12.
The seven-member group is made up entirely of people who are Black, Indigenous or people of color, and organized by Chad Brown of Portland, a Black, disabled U.S. Navy veteran and avid outdoorsman, wilderness advocate and frequent Alaska adventurer.
“It’s a very remote area, part tundra, and very hard to get around in. … While it might look flat in photographs, when you get up close the ground is covered in tussocks, little bumps, and it is a major effort to travel any distance,” Brown said. “A mile on the map can take you half a day to travel.”
The group will be hiking and camping in the Atigun Gorge area where Brown said temperatures and weather conditions can change rapidly, from 70-plus degrees under a blistering sun to sub-freezing with snow falling horizontally, even in July.
Joining the Gwich’in fight
Edmondson said the expedition’s goal is to educate the participants on the issues now on the table for the refuge and for the Gwich’in people, but also to immerse the group in the beauty of the area so they bring that message, and those impressions, back to their communities in the Lower 48.
“They want us to come back and be advocates of the Gwich’in people,” Edmondson said. “To tell their story … to create common ground among people of color on these (environmental) issues.”
The Gwich’in have been battling efforts by oil companies to drill within the national refuge and homeland for years. Critics of drilling the refuge say the land is not just sacred to the Gwich’in but also a vital habitat for caribou, polar bears and migratory birds.
But supporters of tapping the oil reserves, including most of Alaska’s Congressional delegation, want to see oil and gas development move forward in the refuge, including seismic exploration on the refuge's coastal plain. That effort got a boost when Congress passed the 2017 tax bill that mandated an oil and gas program for the Arctic Refuge, requiring two lease sales be held by 2024.
In 2020 the Trump administration moved to allow oil companies in, as per the 2017 law. Earlier this year the Biden administration rescinded that order, putting the drilling leases on hold.
But the issue remains far from decided.
Edmondson said the expedition — including African American, Latino, Native American and Asian American trekkers — is part of a larger effort to connect the many environmental and outdoor access battles of people of color across the continent. While in many cases people of color have been excluded from accessing wild lands, in the Gwich’in case, they are trying to keep the access they have, and keep the lands wild.
“The problems (the Gwich’in) face trying to protect their homeland are similar to the problems Black people and other people of color face every day in this country,” Edmondson said. “The social justice issues we have in the Lower 48 and the issues they have up there, are coming from the same people: Affluent white people who do whatever they want, whenever they want to whoever they want.”
Edmondson, author of the landmark book “Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places” in 2006, has been a leader in getting people of color involved in the outdoors and involved in the conversation of how the outdoors should be managed to make it more accessible to people of color.
Brown founded the nonprofit Love is King recently after several incidents of white people trying to intimidate him to leave public wild lands, including twice being shot at while trying to fish on Oregon rivers.
“One of the goals is simply safety in the outdoors. … To make wild places safe and accessible for everyone, including Black, Indigenous and other people of color,” Brown said.
Brown has led multiple expeditions to the Arctic in recent years, bringing both underserved urban youth and troubled military veterans together to experience the wilds of the Arctic. Now, he’s pushing more people of color to get involved in environmental justice issues.
“It’s important to have BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) leaders out in wild places to show we also care about the environment, to show this is our place, too,” Brown said. “But it’s also important for those leaders to become advocates for other people of color and their issues in wild places.”
In addition to the threat of oil exploration and drilling, Brown said the Arctic National Wildlife refuge is among the most hard-hit areas by climate change. Female polar bears, for example, are more often traveling farther south to make their dens on the refuge’s coastal plain to give birth to their young, primarily due to disappearing sea ice. And wildfires are becoming more common.
In addition to trekking in the refuge, the group will meet with Gwich’in elders in Fairbanks. Originally the group was scheduled to visit remote Gwich'in villages, but those plans have been scuttled due to COVID-19 concerns.
For more information go to loveisking.org and click on Operation Roam.
About the Gwich’in people
The Gwich'in are among the most northerly Indigenous peoples on the North American continent, living at the northwestern limits of the boreal forest form Alaska across the Yukon and into the Northwest Territories, now numbering about 6,000 people in 15 communities.
Hunting, fishing and trapping remain important both culturally and economically, with caribou, moose and whitefish being staples of their diet. In the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge area, the Gwich’in have relied on the Porcupine caribou herd for their clothing and food for generations. The herd is also the source of their spiritual connection to the land. As the caribou give birth to their calves on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, the Gwich’in call it Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."
“From the beginning of time, we’ve depended on caribou for our way of life. We take care of the caribou, and in return, they take care of us. The coastal plain is the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, not only for caribou, but for many other animals who are born there and raise their young there because it’s a safe place away from predators. It should be kept that way because there’s no other place they can go to,” said Sarah James, elder spokesperson for the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government. “It is the core of the caribou existence and Gwich’in existence.”
Sources: Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, Canada; Native American Rights Fund
About the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, located in the northeast corner of Alaska, covers 19.6 million acres in northeast Alaska, more than 30,000 square miles or about 20 times the size of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. It includes the Mollie Beattie Wilderness, the second-largest wilderness area in the U.S. at 8 million acres.
Species including caribou, polar bears, water birds, Arctic foxes, black and brown bears, Dall sheep, moose and muskoxen all rely on this diverse habitat. The Arctic Refuge serves as birthing grounds for the Porcupine caribou in summer and the most important land denning area for America's threatened polar bears in winter.
Approximately 200 species of birds call the Arctic Refuge home at least part of the year, including snowy owls, Arctic terns and golden eagles.
The Inupiaq village Kaktovik is located on the Arctic Ocean coast while the Gwich’in people live in several villages to the south along the border of the Arctic Refuge.