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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Thinking twice in Kaktovik

This is a big deal.

The Washington Post in a story today explores a "small but significant" shift in opinion in the Arctic town of Kaktovik. Long a stalwart supporter of ANWR drilling for the money and jobs it would bring, the town within the Arctic Refuge has shown signs lately of an opinion shift.

A number of local protesters greeted touring politicians at the airstrip last month by chanting slogans and waving signs and banners urging protection for the refuge. That, apparently, has never happened before. Also, a recent petition against drilling drew the signatures of 57 of Kaktovik's 188 adults. Kaktovik Mayor Lon Sonsalla told the Post he is no longer certain where the majority stands.

Driving the change is concern that ANWR drilling would lead to offshore drilling, which could compromise the traditional whale hunts that are a vital tradition to the Inupiak people of Kaktovik. These fears have been fanned by comments from Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, who wants to offer drilling leases in state waters alongside ANWR but said those leases won't be attractive without the ability to attach to onshore facilities.

Locals have also become concerned about the impact on caribou, which they also hunt.

"I've never really taken a stand before -- I've always supported the community position," said grocery store owner Carla Sims Kayotuk. "But I changed by mind this year. ... They want to do the drilling where my family goes to hunt."

Sheldon Brower also changed his opinion after pondering what drilling could do to the refuge. He said hunting and roaming in the refuge is "like going to church for me." Drilling in the refuge, he said, will "destroy our culture completely. ... Just the thought of it makes me sick to my stomach."

Kaktovik locals have no official say in the drilling decision, but their approval has been a central motivating force for drilling proponents. It appears this leg of support may be turning to sawdust beneath them.

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