Alaska Delegation Misses Opportunity to Work with Tribes on Climate Change

Last May, the Arctic Council, an advisory group made up of the eight Arctic nations and Indigenous groups adopted the nine-page "Fairbanks Declaration 2017," which noted that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average, currently, making climate change the most serious threat to Arctic biodiversity. As a result, communities within the Bering Sea region are facing rapidly eroding coastlines, storm surges, flooding, threats to drinking water, loss of subsistence resources and other acute impacts of climate change.

In response to this rising threat, tribal organizations like the Norton Bay Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (NBITWC) and the Bering Sea Elders Group have focused on assisting local communities in addressing the impacts of climate change on water and subsistence resources and health and welfare. Central to these efforts was working with the administration during the waning days of the Obama presidency to establish the North Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area (NBSCRA) which emphasized the administration’s commitment to working with Alaska Native communities in addressing the threat of climate change to such communities.

The hope that the NBSCRA represented to Arctic native communities as part of climate adaption planning efforts, however, were dashed last May when the Executive Order was quietly revoked by President Trump along with parts of other Obama orders withdrawing parts of the Chuckchi and Beaufurt Seas from oil and gas leasing. While the Obama executive order withdrew waters in Norton Sound and around St. Lawrence Island from leasing, it was important to Native Village communities because it also required their participation in agency decision making regarding actions that directly impact such communities.

For example, the order called for the creation of a tribal advisory council to work with federal managers on decisions across 112,000 square miles, in the northern Bering Sea and in waters around the Seward Peninsula. The council would have consisted of up to 11 members from coastal communities in the area. One of the reasons for establishing the advisory council was to provide local input to federal managers to prevent conflicts between subsistence hunting and increasing ship traffic in the area due to disappearing sea ice in the Northwest Passage. The order also required agencies to consider traditional knowledge in decisions affecting the area.

However, it’s not just that the Trump order revoked the NBSCRA with all of it’s unprecedented inclusiveness for Alaska Native village communities in agency decision making, but the curious actions of the Alaska Congressional Delegation who issued a statement praising the action. News images of Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Representative Don Young (who are supposed to be protecting the interests of Alaskans) standing next to President Trump and applauding as he signed the revocation order are curious particularly, because Trump indicated that order would only affect Obama’s oil and gas leasing bans in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, but in fact, the only such order that Trump revoked in it’s entirety, was the NBSCRA.  

Adding insult to injury, the Bering Sea Elders Group and other  Alaska Natives met with the Delegation to let them know that they had written the terms in the NBSCRA order and the Delegation, in turn, agreed to notify communities in the area if revocation of Obama's order was even being considered. Native groups, however, were never contacted before Trump rescinded the NBSCRA.

Granted there is some question as to whether the Delegation actually new that Trump was revoking the NBSCRA Executive Order as well as the other withdrawals or the Order simply got caught up in the other Oil and Gas leasing withdrawals that Trump revoked on that day and that the delegation actually did endorse. One indication that this may be the case is that the delegation's statement in support of Trumps action made no mention of the Bering Sea. Also, the Trump administration has been criticized, in the past, for failing to fully communicate with lawmakers in his aggressive effort, to date, to rewrite Obama's policies. Still, so far, requests from tribes asking why the delegation broke it’s promise that it would at least warn the villages before everything they have worked for in relation to the NBSCRA was thrown out the window, have gone unanswered.

The one silver lining in the debacle may have come last June when the new interior secretary, Ryan Zink, during a tour of Alaska, stated that he would work to give Alaska Natives more opportunities to take over wildlife management and other federal responsibilities. Especially, after the void in adequately addressing climate resiliency in the Bering Sea region created by elimination of the NBSCRA, now all we need is a commitment from Murkowski, Sullivan and Young need to do the same.