Alaskan leaders took their case for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Capitol Hill on Thursday, casting development in the protected region as vital to the state’s economic future.

Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott appeared before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski – the senior member of Alaska’s congressional delegation. Both men were in favor of the matter before the committee Thursday: drilling in ANWR’s 1002 section, a non-wilderness area of the refuge. It covers 1.57 million acres of land in northeast Alaska, within the non-wilderness portion of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Sixteen members of the Alaska Senate sent a letter to the committee in support of development in ANWR. In the House, members on both sides of the aisle said they also support the move. 

Even those who said they were concerned about wilderness in the area said they think some limited parts should be opened for exploration.

"I share the concerns about the value of that resource as left untouched, but I think given particularly the state’s financial circumstances, that it would be important to know what’s in the ground," said Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage), chair of the House Resources Committee. 

Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kotzebue), vice-chair of the Resources Committee, sponsored a joint resolution in support of development in the region. The measure was approved by both the House and Senate in February. 

"I'm optimistic, cautiously optimistic," Westlake said of Thursday's U.S. Senate hearing. "I think it’s a wonderful first step in something we’ve been wanting to see for  a long time."

Opponents of the Gwich’in Tribe, argue the habitat needs to be preserved. The Alaska Native people in that region depend on the porcupine caribou herd and they say drilling for oil would be detrimental to the population.

“We Gwich'in live a rich life and we live a rich life because of our connection to the land and the porcupine caribou herd. Money can't buy our wealth but the reckless pursuit of money can take it away. And for that we will never stop fighting for the porcupine caribou herd and our way of life,” said Samuel Alexander, a member of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government.

Not all Alaska Native groups are opposed to development. Kaktovik, a village of 250 people, is the only community within the borders of the 1002 Area. Some people there, are very much in favor of drilling and the financial possibilities that come with it.

Matthew Rexford, the tribal administrator for the Native Village of Kaktovik, was at the hearing to tell the panel his people would not become “conservation refugees.”

“We do not approve of efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park which literally guarantees us a fate with no economy, no jobs, reduced subsistence and no hope for the future of our people,” Rexford said.

The hearing follows a May order from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to evaluate resources in ANWR and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The Washington Post reported in September that the Trump administration had moved in August to remove time constraints from a rule which allowed exploratory drilling in the refuge from late 1984 to early 1986. Any move to drill the refuge is likely to face legal opposition from environmental groups, which have helped block attempts to do so for decades.

Walker told the committee Thursday that 90 percent of the state’s lawmakers support exploration in the 1002 section, according to a summary provided by his office. He likened the natural resources in Alaska’s ground to those harvested on the ground in Midwest states such as wheat and corn.

“The trans-Alaska pipeline is three-quarters empty, and the state is suffering the largest fiscal crisis in our history,” Walker said. “When Alaska became a state, we had a promise from the federal government in our statehood compact: we need to live off the resources in our land.”

During his testimony, Mallott said the nation is living in “a petroleum era.”

“The oil must come from somewhere; why not here, in the United States, where we control the environmental rules?” Mallott said. “Most importantly it’s in our national security interest to develop our own oil to build energy independence.”

Richard Glenn, executive vice president of lands and natural resources for the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., also testified at Thursday’s hearing on drilling in ANWR. He told lawmakers that residents of the North Slope believed exploration and production activities could occur safely.

“The reality is that the survival of our region and the development of our communities today depend on continued exploration and production,” White said. “Without this economic driver, our communities will need access to greater government subsidies and programs in order to be sustained.”

Heather Hintze and Liz Raines contributed to this story.