A day before Joe Biden is sworn in as President of the United States, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finalized a plan for a vast swath of western Alaska that eliminates existing protections for the landscape and rejects nominations for additional conservation areas submitted by Indigenous peoples. peoples whose life and ancestry are closely linked to the land. This final plan promotes extractive development such as mining and drilling and poses a serious threat to the wildlife, watershed ecosystems and communities that this landscape has supported for centuries.
Now the Department of the Interior has an opportunity to address tribal concerns and revise the plan to strike a better balance and meet the agency’s multipurpose mandate.
The BLM’s Bering Sea and Western Interior Landscaping Region is home to more than 65 indigenous communities who depend on the region’s abundance of fish, wildlife and plants – for food, clothing , building materials and cultural practices – for generations. The vast area managed by the BLM includes most of the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River, and Unalakleet River watersheds, as well as other critical ecosystems that federally recognized tribes in Alaska have managed for thousands of years. ‘years.
The January 2021 plan opens 99% of the western Bering Sea interior to extractive development, although the BLM has previously identified some planning area watersheds the tribes rely on as ‘scarce and irreplaceable’ . The agency also recognized “a fisheries resource of international significance” that stretches over 2,000 miles of the Yukon River and its tributaries in the United States and Canada and provides food for thousands of people in the region.
Since 2014, tribes in the region have asked the BLM to protect crucial watersheds and culturally significant areas of the Bering Sea and western interior, and in 2019 they formed the Bering Sea Tribal Commission. and from within 37 members to advocate for land use decisions that reflect Indigenous priorities. Since President Biden took office, the committee has met five times with current BLM leaders, each time asking for an amendment to address significant shortcomings in the 2021 Bering Sea-Western Interior plan.
Specifically, the commission requested that the BLM use the plan amendment process to reevaluate tribal nominations for areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC) and reconsider the agency’s decision to remove the designations of all existing ACECs in the planning area. The agency should respond to the commission’s concerns as soon as possible, as implementing the plan could potentially devastate the tribes’ food sources and customary uses of those lands and waters.
Updating the Bering Sea and Western Interior plan to address tribal concerns would be consistent with Biden administration policies to improve tribal relations and safeguard ancestral lands, including:
The Biden administration can deliver on these commitments to tribes by revising the BLM Bering Sea-Western Interior Plan to address tribal concerns and creating clear requirements for consultation, co-stewardship, sustenance, and conservation. This would help build trust between the agency and the Indigenous peoples of the planning area and help the people, wildlife, lands and waters of the area prosper into the future.
Suzanne Little works on the US Public Lands and Rivers Conservation Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts based in Anchorage, Alaska.