In the last days of the Trump Administration, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finalized the Bering Sea-Western Interior Resource Management Plan, determining the allowable uses of over 13.5 million acres of ancestral Tribal land, stretching from the mid-Yukon River, Upper Koyukuk, and Upper Kuskokwim to the Bering Sea. This resource management plan will guide management of these lands for the next twenty to thirty years, significantly impacting the sixty-five federally recognized Alaska Native Tribes living a way of life intrinsically connected to land in this planning area.
Indigenous Peoples have stewarded this land since time immemorial and the landscape continues to be foundational to our Indigenous Peoples’ traditional and contemporary way of life. Tribes nominated critical watersheds for protection from mining and extractive development in the planning process, yet none of the nominated watersheds received protection in BLM’s plan. Instead, BLM opened all but 1 percent of the land to mining. “That’s not multiple use” said Holy Cross Tribe’s First Chief and Tribal Commission Chair Eugene Paul, “that’s all the land for one use.”
“We don’t own the land, but we belong to the land, and what happens to the land happens to us,” said Nathan Elswick, Second Chief of Anvik Tribe. BLM failed to recognize planning area Tribes’ knowledge, expertise, and role as stewards of our traditional lands. Throughout the planning process, BLM ignored the Tribes’ comments and concerns. In its proposed plan, the BLM selects an alternative that Cooperating Agency Tribes had no opportunity to review before the plan’s publication. BLM’s decision to reject meaningful participation by Tribes and protections for the Tribes’ nominated watersheds sends the clear message that the voices of planning area Tribes do not matter in the agency’s planning processes.
Frank Katchatag, President of the Native Village of Unalakleet and Vice-Chairman of the Tribal Commission, said: “Impacts to our customary and traditional use areas were not considered or evaluated seriously. Our communities will bear the burden from the plan and our input has been largely ignored.”
In the last 16 months, the Bering Sea-Interior Tribal Commission, with 37 member Tribes, has met five times with Biden administration BLM officials asking for a commitment to amend the Bering Sea Plan to address the Tribal Commission’s concerns, so far without a commitment from BLM. The reluctance of Biden Administration officials to respond to the Tribes with commitment for a plan amendment is hard to justify given the administration’s own policies:
- A Joint Secretarial Order to ensure the department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior are managing federal lands and waters in a manner that seeks to protect subsistence and cultural interests of federally recognized Tribes. This Order ensures that Tribal governments will play an integral role in decision making related to the management of federal lands and requires the agencies to give due consideration to Tribal recommendations on public lands management. The Order endeavors to engage in co-stewardship to elevate the role of Tribes in land management.
- Executive Memo on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge that commits to strengthening the relationship with Tribal Nations, ensuring that Federal agencies conduct regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal officials in the development of federal decisions – especially decisions that may affect Tribal nations and the people they represent.
- President Biden’s executive order to tackle the climate crisis domestically and abroad establishing a national policy of conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030 and committing to work with Tribal communities to accomplish this ambitious goal.
This trailblazing policy framework requires more than meetings, which are a good start. The region’s sovereign tribes have asked the BLM to amend the Bering Sea plan to provide protections for nominated areas and watersheds important to local Tribes. At this point, Tribes are wondering whether the Biden administration’s lofty policies are just words like we have heard for generations – or will the words become action to address Tribes’ concerns.
Bering Sea-Interior Tribal Commission is a tribal consortium of thirty-seven federally recognized Tribes working in unity to protect our traditional ways of life by advocating for land use planning processes and natural resource management decisions that reflect our voices and values.
Formal protests to the Bering Sea-Western Proposed Resource Management Plan/Final Environment Impact State can be made here: https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/36665/570