(This April 24 story corrects poll results in paragraph 23)
By Gregory Scruggs
KAKTOVIK, Alaska (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The sun had yet to rise in the remote Arctic in northeastern Alaska but tourists in search of polar bears were already boarding small boats setting off from a frozen beach.
Bears have become a popular attraction for visitors to Kaktovik, a 250-person Native Alaskan village surrounded by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the U.S.’s largest wildlife park covering 19.6 million acres (7.9 million hectares).
This has generated steady work for indigenous Inupiaq hunters-turned-guides who ferry tourists around the waters of this island town while keeping a safe distance from polar bears, whose playful appearance belies their dangerous nature.
For the bears’ growing presence in Kaktovik during an increasingly long ice-free season is a cause for alarm with local residents blaming climate change - and this has fueled a growing dispute over oil drilling in the largely unscathed area.
“The polar bears are in abundance here on the shore because their habitat has gone away - because the world is burning too much fossil fuel,” guide Robert Thompson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after a day of polar bear guiding.
The link between fossil fuels and a warming Arctic is the key reason Thompson opposes oil drilling in a 1.5 million acre coastal plain of the ANWR known as the 1002 area - but change is afoot with Washington rolling back protections.
Thompson is on one side of a bitter fight that has divided this remote village and sparked debate over who are the true custodians of Native Alaskan land.
In 1968, the largest proven oil reserve in U.S. history was discovered about 175 km (110 miles) west of Kaktovik in Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope. With the completion of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in 1977, the region became a key energy source.
In 1971, the U.S. government passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which paid nearly $1 billion at that time to Native Alaskans and transferred about 44 million acres of public land to indigenous-controlled corporations.
The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), whose shareholders are the Inupiaq people of the North Slope, owns surface and subsurface rights to millions of acres in the Arctic, and leases land for oil and gas exploration.
With the Kaktovik Inupiaq Corporation, the two indigenous companies own 92,000 acres of surface and subsurface rights in ANWR which contains some of North America’s wildest territory.
Within the refuge borders, there are no roads, established trails, or buildings of any type, and no cell phone service, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This is a true wilderness refuge,” the Arctic park’s website states.
In the 1980s oil major Chevron drilled the only exploratory well in ANWR, the most significant step toward petroleum development in a decades-long debate about whether oil could be drilled safely in the refuge, without affecting wildlife.
That debate took a new turn in December 2017 when Congress passed a tax-overhaul bill with a provision mandating two oil lease sales in the 1002 area, each offering at least 400,000 acres, within seven years.
Environmental and Native groups criticized the Department of the Interior (DoI) for moving too swiftly on readying a lease sale for later this year, saying more time was needed to consult with tribes and other locals.
Last December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a draft environmental impact statement outlining four possible scenarios for oil drilling.
In February, the DoI’s Bureau of Land Management held public meetings in several Alaskan cities and villages, including Kaktovik, as well as in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital.
Both steps are part of the standard procedure to move ahead with selling an oil lease, said Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, furthering her hopes that drilling will proceed under the Trump administration. “According to the schedule released by the Department of Interior, they plan to issue a final environmental impact statement later this summer or early fall,” Moriarty said in emailed comments.
“At this point, they haven’t missed that deadline so we have no reason to believe that a lease sale will not occur.”
A small 2016 poll conducted by the village found 52 percent of surveyed residents supported oil and gas drilling in ANWR, while 32 percent opposed it and 16 percent were neutral.
“You’ll have people who hate your guts because you’re saying no,” Kaktovik Mayor Nora Jane Burns told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the village office.
Burns grew up supporting oil development but has changed her mind over the years.
“The main concern is the animals,” she said.
The Gwich’in Athabascan people of Alaska and Canada, who live and hunt in the southern part of ANWR, oppose oil development because it threatens the caribou herd that is central to their diet and culture.
Burns said most Inupiaq support for oil drilling came from larger settlements away from Kaktovik, like the North Slope’s largest city, Utqiagvik, where the ASRC is headquartered.
“On the western side, they all want development. They want it here on our land because they want to preserve their own hunting grounds,” Burns said.
“We always like to represent ourselves but they represent us - but they don’t live here.”
Other local leaders see benefits from increased petroleum exploration, noting that nearly all of the town’s infrastructure - like a brand-new school with a heated swimming pool - comes from oil revenue.
“Life is a lot easier nowadays than it was before any of the development occurred,” Matthew Rexford, tribal administrator for Kaktovik, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We have some folks still alive who have gone through starvation. They do not want to see that ever occur again in our communities.”
But Thompson, who once made his living fur-trapping and now runs a lucrative guiding business, does not believe Kaktovik will gain most from drilling in the refuge.
“Who is going to benefit? ASRC is a for-profit corporation in joint venture with the oil industry,” he said.
Crawford Patkotak, an Inupiaq whaling captain and executive vice-president at the ASRC, said that “we as Inupiaq people consider ourselves the first conservationists, but with the right balance.”
“We believe that (oil development) can be done in a way that it doesn’t harm the migration of the caribou.”
Back on the water, the ice was starting to form but was still thin enough for boats to navigate through the slush allowing for prime polar bear viewing.
“This time of year they should be out on the ice eating seals,” said guide Bruce Inglangasak.
“They’re going to have to learn to adapt, we’re going to have to learn to adapt too.”
Reporting by Gregory Scruggs, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org