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04/20/2011

One Wild Week

207594_10150146103138884_30866133883_6695791_2271888_n It’s not every week that activists visit Washington D.C. to advocate for wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but when they do everyone knows about it.  As Washington D.C. celebrated the arrival of spring with its annual Cherry Blossom Festival, over 40 activists from across the US and Canada descended on our nation’s capital to experience democracy firsthand. They were not there to soak up the pink explosion of blossoms; they were there to protect some of the wildest country left in the world – America’s Arctic.  In over 80 meetings with key decision makers these citizen advocates carried the message that the Arctic is alive and must be protected for future generations.

For years, people from all walks of life and all corners of the country, have fought to protect the Arctic Refuge not just because it is special to wildlife but because it is sacred to Alaska Natives.  This spring we were lucky to be joined by members of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, who teamed up with activists as they walked the marbled halls of Congress. 

Imagine travelling from Arctic Village, Alaska, to Washington, D.C. Do you even know where that is, how many connecting flights, or how long that would take?  Four time zone changes later you arrive in a metropolis with thousands more people and no snow in sight.  For decades tribal members and Alaskans have done this, and they’ll keep doing it for as long as they have to… but hopefully it won’t be that much longer!

Durbin and Sarah James One of the highlights of wilderness week was when a delegation of Gwich’in leaders, Sierra Club staff, and local activists met with Senator Dick Durbin in his Capitol office. Senator Durbin has been a champion for the Arctic Refuge for his entire time in the Senate and he was a very gracious host. He listened intently as Ernest Erik, a Gwich’in from Venetie described a life connected to the land. We presented Senator Durbin with an award for his efforts and Gwich’in Sara James presented him with wild tea she had collected from the land. The Senator visited the Arctic Refuge a few years ago and knows the place, and why it must be protected, first hand. During our conversation he talked fondly of the trip through Arctic Village and the nights sleeping on the tundra. He called that experience one of his most profound as a Senator.

We are lucky to have a Champion like Senator Durbin and we must do all that we can to make sure other decision makers know the importance of protecting America’s Arctic.

Alaska Natives face a unique challenge in that they fight to keep their children and their cultures alive by protecting the Arctic Refuge and the life it sustains, mainly the caribou populations.  Wilderness Week activists have a chance to tie their values and concerns with each other, anything from the desire to protect wild places for their grandchildren, to admiring birds in their own backyards who nest in the Arctic Refuge, to doing what is right for our environment.  The values participants bring with them might not be the same once they leave because the discussions change them, and also change the minds of legislators. 

-Lindsey Hajduk, Sierra Club Arctic Campaign

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