President Barack Obama issued an executive order Friday protecting parts of the Bering Sea from shipping, and oil and gas development, while also giving locals a voice in federal government.
“It’s a historic moment for us,” said Harry Lincoln of Tunanak. “This is the first time in our lives, in all these years, hundreds of years, that we’ve ever had an executive order done for us.”
It protects 112,300 square miles as the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.
The measures are what coastal communities in Western Alaska have been working toward. In June, representatives from regional villages — like Chevak and Kwigillingok — met to form the Bering Sea Elders Group (BSEG) to discuss food security and their subsistence lifestyle.
“They were wondering how to protect the place they were so fully dependent on for survival,” said Natalie Landreth, senior staff with the Native American Rights Fund and BSEG’s attorney. “Someone said, ‘Let’s ask the president.’ I laughed and said, ‘That’s kind of a Hail Mary,’ and explained what that meant and here we are.”
BSEG drafted a resolution that outlined issues like spill prevention and requiring the federal government get input from the locals before making a decision that impacts Alaskans.
“This was given to the White House and they drafted the order directly from the resolution. That’s extraordinary,” Landreth said. “I’ve never seen that in my life and we probably won’t see it again.”
The executive order also includes a point that people with traditional local knowledge of the land be consulted in policy and decision-making. It also creates the Bering Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council to ensure those voices in rural Alaska get heard all the way in Washington, D.C.
“Basically, the first people on the ground observing the changes, we understand what’s happening with the seal population, polar bear population,” said Melanie Bahnke, president of Kawerak, a Native association based in Nome. “Often times decisions about allocations, quotas or listing them as threatened are made without our input thousands of miles away.”
One part of the executive order that’s drawing fire is the withdrawal of 40,300 square miles from oil leasing and exploration.
Gov. Bill Walker issued a statement saying he supports the tribal leaders but, “The State of Alaska is concerned about any further erosion of our ability to support much needed resource development at a time when the state is grappling with declining oil prices and production.”
Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R) also criticized it and called on President-elect Donald Trump to reverse it.
“This decision by President Obama is yet another attempt to put his no development, no jobs, agenda ahead of Alaska and its people,” Dunleavy said.
Landreth said no oil company has expressed interest in the area and called the withdrawals “low-hanging fruit.” She said the region has been explored before and it’s not commercially viable like the North Slope.
“The oil interest is largely in the neighboring basin, in the Navarin Basin, and that’s untouched by this order,” Landreth said.
There is some concern about the possibility Trump will reverse the order once he’s in office, but for now community leaders said they’re going to focus on celebrating the executive order and what it means for their people.
“Every four years something changes, but we’ve been here for 10,000 years and our goal is to ensure that our environment is sustained for the next 10,000 years regardless of who’s in power,” Bahnke said.