The Complicated History — and Future — of the Western Arctic

By Arlo Nasruk Davis

This week, Trustees for Alaska will deliver oral arguments in court on a lawsuit demonstrating the Bureau of Land Management’s failure to adequately assess impacts to wildlife, recreation, or subsistence use on the lands included in the 2017 lease sale in the Western Arctic. Since the sales occurred last year, the administration’s disregard for thorough public process has become clearer every day.

The current management plan for the Western Arctic, the Integrated Activity Plan (IAP), was the result of extensive public input from communities in region, and put areas of particular importance to wildlife and people off limits to development. The administration wants to open up the IAP again, once again putting “energy dominance” above the needs of citizens. Residents of this region have long been experiencing the negative impacts of colonial extractive development, including impacts on health and continued economic dependence on the industry doing the damage, as noted below. But the Bureau of Land Management did not take this into account when making an unprecedented number of parcels available to the industry. This lawsuit is about making sure that the agencies charged with caretaking our public lands take the required steps to protect fish, wildlife, access to wild foods, and habitat, and ensuring that future lease sales honor the democratic process, and the law.

-Erica Watson

Many of us know that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required by NEPA before large projects on federal/public land can occur. The EIS process involves researching the status of the environment in the area in question, including ecology of watershed systems, regional biology, and how the proposed project could impact human and non-human elements of the landscape. The required scientific field work can take years to complete, and it is rarely, if ever, a simple process.

The required economic studies may be lesser known than the physical science, and they are often some of the most complicated aspects of the EIS. Any regional economy is shaped by our country’s long colonial history, and the economics of rural Alaska are especially complicated by the lasting impacts and experience of colonialism. This is even further exacerbated in the Northern part of the state by oil development.

Economist Scott Goldsmith of the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) points out one aspect of the lasting impacts of colonialism in Alaska Native villages: the structure of the Alaska welfare system:

“Another way of assessing how many residents are without work is the number of Alaska Native villages in the region that are exempt from the standard five-year limit on welfare benefits. Since the national overhaul of the welfare system in the late 1990s, most welfare recipients are limited to five years of benefits. But residents of federally recognized Alaska Native villages where more than half the adults do not have jobs are exempt from that limit.” (Goldsmith, 2008, 9).

This exemption was probably intended to help us, but it has not. Oil dependency and the State budget are proof. People whose traditional roles date back longer than China has been a country are now tied into an economic system that keeps them perpetually checking the mailbox for a check. The Alaska government’s singular focus on oil in the 1970s means that the budget now “rests on a so-called three-legged stool: 1) Federal government spending, 2) Crude oil production, and 3) All other basic industries combined, such as mining, fishing, and tourism” (Alaska Annual Economic Outlook, 2015, 6).

Which brings us to the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, or the NPR-A, and recent expanded oil and gas lease sales in the area. The NPR-A is unique because of the many federally recognized sovereign nations that have lived in the area for over ten thousand years and now depend on a cash economy.

Especially in this context, Alaskan politicians’ calls for jobs, supposedly on behalf of their constituents, must be tempered with recognition of the motivations behind the short-sighted focus on employment rather than economic justice and diversification. The real world economic situation needs to be addressed, including the constituents most affected by the process. Even ignoring world-wide record high levels of carbon dioxide, C02, and the climate changes visible around the world, and especially in the circumpolar Arctic, diversifying the Alaskan economy away from oil can only help. The three-billion dollar budget gap the state has been struggling with for the last couple years must be met with creative and diverse solutions that include — not exclude — the public.

The trouble is that the most vulnerable most directly affected population has very small numbers, which puts the onus on their supporters to speak up.

Arlo Nasruk Davis worked as the conservation coordinator at the Northern Center in 2017. He currently serves on the board of Native Movement, and lives in Wasilla.