Critics protest proposed drilling in Alaska's Arctic refuge

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Natives who rely on caribou for subsistence lined up in the state's largest city to protest federal plans for petroleum development in a wilderness area.

Environmental groups and other opponents are expected at a Bureau of Land Management meeting in Anchorage on Monday. The agency plans to discuss a draft environmental review on drilling within the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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Congress in December 2017 approved a tax bill that requires an oil and gas lease sale in the refuge to raise revenue for a tax cut backed by President Donald Trump.

Critics say opening the refuge should have been in legislation where the merits of development versus wilderness were debated. They scoff at the tax bill's projections that lease sales will put more than $1 billion into federal coffers over 10 years.

Opponents also say development will create a spider web of roads and pipelines connecting drill pads, affecting far more acreage throughout the wilderness area.

The coastal plain is the nursery for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, named for the Porcupine River. The 200,000-animal herd migrates from Canada to a strip of flat tundra in Alaska's northeast corner between Brooks Range mountains and the Arctic Ocean. Gwich'in Natives in Alaska and Canada depend on hunting the caribou for their subsistence lifestyle.

Bernadette Demientieff, director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, said the future of her people and the future of the caribou are one in the same.

"The Gwich'in have a cultural and spiritual connection to the Porcupine caribou," Demientieff said in a statement. "Our Elders and our traditional knowledge tell us that taking care of the land keeps the caribou healthy and the caribou in turn keep our people healthy."

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1960 during President Dwight Eisenhower's administration. Congress in 1980 expanded the refuge to nearly the size of South Carolina with the provision that 2,300 square miles (5,957 sq. kilometers) of the coastal plain be studied for natural resources.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the plain holds 10.4 billion barrels of oil.