RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the poster child for the battles over oil development. It's been at the heart of the debate for 20 years. But just south of ANWR, in Alaska's interior, there's another controversial push for development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a land exchange that would allow oil and gas development within the nine million acre Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock of the Alaska Public Radio network reports.
BONNIE-SUE HITCHCOCK: Eight miles above the Arctic Circle in the mostly Athabascan village of Fort Yukon, 160 people are filing into the tribal hall for a recent public hearing with the Fish and Wildlife Service. It's chilly inside, so residents stay bundled in parkas and beaver skin hats. Almost a third of the village is here to testify long into the night about a land exchange which would open up their region to oil and gas development.
Mr. TONY HANLU(ph): My name is Tony Hanlu. The reason I oppose the land exchange is because I like my grass green and my goose fat and my moose meat lean and my rivers clean. All right.
(Soundbite of applause)
HITCHCOCK: Ninety-five percent of the people here depend on the land for meat and fish. Even though they pay over $5.50 a gallon for fuel, and unemployment can be as high as 80 percent in villages within the Yukon flats, residents still say development is too risky.
Mr. RON ENGLISHSHOE(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
Elder Ron Englishshoe testifies in his native Gwich'in Athabascan. He like many others says native land is disappearing and what little is left needs to be protected, not developed. We already have to go farther and farther to hunt moose, he says.
Doyon Limited, the Fairbanks-based native corporation that represents this area, already has an agreement in principle with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Doyon would give the agency about 150,000 acres of wetland habit and in exchange get refuge land which they believe holds the mother lode - as much as 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and almost a billion barrels of oil.
Norm Phillips is the natural resources manager for Doyon.
Mr. NORM PHILLIPS (Doyon Limited): We can't depend on outside funding. We have to get involved, lay out our vision and start moving down the path to make us sustainable.
HITCHCOCK: Phillips says the corporation is doing what it was mandated to do - create jobs for native shareholders, raise dividends, and develop local resources.
But Dacho Alexander, first chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in tribal government in Fort Yukon, says the struggle over land use is the crux of the problem.
Mr. DACHO ALEXANDER (Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Chief): What we have today in the Yukon Flats is we actually have the villages fighting against our regional corporation, our same regional corporation which was entrusted with our land for protection - at least that's the way we saw it.
HITCHCOCK: Because Alaska's congressional delegation has long supported drilling in the region, there's also a concern that development in the Yukon Flats Refuge is a backdoor push for oil and gas exploration in neighboring ANWR.
The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that this swap isn't a done deal, and they won't make any decision before the end of the public comment period on March 25th.
For NPR News, I'm Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock.