The future of Alaska depends on our efforts
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The future of Alaska depends on our efforts

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April 10, 2009

Three years after the Atlantic-Richfield Company discovered oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, the United States government enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

It was one of the biggest land grabs in American history. In one fell swoop, collective land-title rights were extinguished and the entire Indigenous population of Alaska went from being land title holders to little more than shareholders on privately owned land.

Fortunately, in 1987 the Indigenous Peoples successfully won some amendments to the act, but the table remained set for a policy of extinguishment that continues to this day.

Since the settlement act was imposed, unilaterally and without any consultation, the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Tlingit, Athabascan, Haida, Aleut, and Tsimpshian Peoples have been repeated witnesses to the destruction of their communities, the disruption of their cultures, and the death of “countless numbers of birds, marine mammals, fish, and other wildlife,” says the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). All the while through, “the threat of oil spills—for which there is no technology available to clean up—[has been] constant.”

Today, as America attempts to secure a future for their insatiable dependence on oil, and as numerous species in Alaska find themselves on the brink of extinction, the prospect of disaster grows even more.

73 million acres

We can see as much in the U.S. Minerals Management Service’s (MMS) plan to lease out an est. 73 million acres of sea-bearing land to the oil and gas industry.

To date, more than 150,000 individuals have spoken against the plan, along with dozens of environmental groups and indigenous communities.

They unanimously agree that the consequences of oil development–across the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, in Bristol Bay, and not to forget in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge–are simply too great for anyone to blithely charge ahead for that most coveted of resources.

Only when “a comprehensive plan has been prepared based on a full scientific assessment of the health, biodiversity, and functioning of these arctic ecosystems,” says the World Wildlife fund, can we seriously talk about oil development in the Arctic.

There are also needs to be some “proven technology” to ensure that oil spills can be contained.

“The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service Environmental Impact Statement on the Chukchi Sea estimates there is a 40% chance of one or more large spills (greater than 1,000 barrels, or about 42,000 gallons of oil),” explains Pacific Environment. “The environmental conditions in this icy region preclude even cursory clean-up efforts; no reliable method exists for cleaning up oil in broken sea ice.”

“Recall the devastation that occurred after the Exxon-Valdez spill. After 20 years, Prince William Sound is still recovering from that event,” says the Wilderness Society on their website. “Now imagine a place where oil and toxic chemicals break down more slowly, and animals tend to congregate in large groups. A single large spill in the wrong place at the wrong time could devastate whole populations of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals;” several of which already on the verge of extinction.

Protecting the Land

Oil spills could also devastate the Indigenous population who remain culturally and economically dependent on the land.

“Through long term use and occupancy, we understand this ecosystem better than most,” says Norman Anderson, from the community of Naknek. “All five species of salmon are the mainstay of the economy of our communities. Within the last thirty years, the herring fishery became a big business, along with the halibut and king crab. Along the Alaska peninsula is an area called ‘cod alley’ that is used by CDQ’s (community development quotas) this area also supports Pollock, so the whole area will be impacted. We are also concerned for surface and subsurface clams and crabs. There is concern for the whales, their sensors are so delicate. Seismic testing will devastate them, which has been proven to harm their sense of direction. We depend on migrating birds as well- Muir, geese, and seagull eggs are also an important subsistence resource in the springtime. Oil and exploration would devastate our subsistence lifestyle. Any spill of any magnitude would destroy our way of life.”

“The government of the people, in helping the industry drill for oil at all costs, is disregarding the future of the Arctic people,” adds Doreen Simmonds, from the community of Barrow. “The drilling involves two massive drill ships accompanied by ice breakers, support vessels, and air support. This level of industrial activity in the Beaufort threatens the endangered bowhead whale. Considering the movement of the ocean ice, there is too big of a risk that an oil spill will occur, therefore creating a risk of destroying the Inupiat culture.”

There is only one clear way to make sure this doesn’t happen. The plan to ransack the region of its oil must be prevented.

Or, perhaps more realistically, IEN suggests, the Department of Interior must be compelled to fulfill its role as a responsible steward of the land.

We all have a major role to play in accomplishing this, by writing, talking and protesting about it, by supporting the Indigenous communities on the front lines, and by demanding the government adopt a social policy and an energy policy that meets up with our standards. Simply put, the government needs to “catch up.”

As for the Indigenous Peoples, they will continue to struggle as they always have for the past 30 years and beyond: to secure their rights, their lands, and their way of life.

Photo Credits: (1) (2) Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (3) Jonathan Harris

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