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Could Alaska be the Center of a Just Transition?
By Hal Shepherd
Alaska has the potential to make a significant contribution to one of the most ambitious land conservation efforts in U.S. History.
Alaska has long been at the center of the discussion about environmental issues - initially playing a major role in shaping the environmental movement as well as GOP regulatory rollbacks and industry land grabs, which reached historic levels under the Trump administration. Trump seemed particularly focused on exploiting Alaska’s rich natural resources and apparently couldn’t abide the vast areas of land within the state that had been set aside by past democratic presidents through National Monuments, Wildlife Refuges, Areas of Critical Concern, and other withdrawn federal lands. As such, the Trump administration seemed bent on lifting protection for every last acre of these fragile and ecologically unique lands.
In stark contrast to these regulatory rollbacks, President Biden has initiated multiple measures to address water and environmental justice issues and to reverse the public lands management chaos created by the previous administration.Starting in January 2021, for example, Biden directed all executive departments and agencies to prepare and update detailed plans of action to implement Clinton-era Executive Order 13175, which directs federal agencies to engage in “regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration” with and to “respect Indian tribal self-government and sovereignty.”
Ever since, the list of such directives has grown steadily to include incorporating traditional knowledge into decision-making, guidance for co-stewardship of federal lands with tribal governments and for designation of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, uniform standards for tribal Governmental-to-Governmental consultation and improving relations with Tribal Governments including to elevate Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge in federal scientific and policy processes.
Now, it appears that Alaska is, once again, at the center of controversy related to environmental justice and the efforts to address climate impacts on ecosystems and subsistence resources. On the one hand, the state has become the sacrifice area for the nation’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions, including a proposed graphite mine that threatens subsistence resources tribal communities depend upon in the remote Kigluiak Mountain range of the North Bering Sea region, to oil and gas production mandated to take place at the mouth of Kachemak Bay (one of the world’s most biologically productive marine ecosystems) as a compromise to obtaining passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.
On the other hand, many potential project decisions in Alaska could lay the foundation for the Biden administration’s conservation and climate mitigation agenda. This includes a reversal of a massive industry public land grab under Trump, the dismissal of a proposed mine that threatens one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries, and an unprecedented collaboration and consultation with federally recognized Alaska Native Tribes.
This foundation is based partly on the fact that Alaska lays claim to more than 36 percent of all federal lands in the United States, including national parks, forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, and wildlife refuges. Also, because the geographic scope of the state’s land base amounts to 18 percent of the nation as a whole, it contains approximately 53 percent of the country’s carbon stock. Alaska is also home to 231 tribal governments that make up almost 20 percent of the state’s population, most of which rely on intact ecosystems on public lands for subsistence and traditional practices.According to the Center for American Progress, “Due to Alaska’s size, unique natural resources, and amount of federally owned land [natural resource related] decisions will have an outsize impact on the nation’s overall climate and conservation progress.”
Alaska, therefore, has the potential to make a significant contribution to one of the most ambitious land conservation efforts in U.S. History. In the fall of 2021, the Biden Administration proposed the America the Beautiful initiative that would conserve, connect, and restore 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030 “in order to give every person in America — present and future — the chance to experience the freedoms, joys, bounties, and opportunities that the nation’s rich and vibrant lands and waters provide.”
It appears that the best way to meet the ambitious goals of the 30x30 initiative is through multiple community-led National Monuments and Marine Sanctuaries proposals throughout the nation which are awaiting action by the Biden administration. The proposed Alaĝum Kanuux̂—or “Heart of the Ocean”—National Marine Sanctuary surrounding the Pribilof Islands was nominated in 2021 by the Unangan Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government under a co-management system to advance Indigenous-led conservation and tribal self-determination, while supporting local economies and protecting biodiversity. This co-managed freshwater watershed and marine area would emphasize Native tradition and culture, including caring for the whole ecosystem and respect for nature.
Similarly, the Norton Bay Inter-tribal Watershed Council is considering a proposal to establish a co-managed National Marine Sanctuary encompassing the marine and freshwater habitat for the 12,000-acre watershed located in the North Bering Sea Region. As part of achieving the 30 x 30 objective, therefore, the Biden administration could establish a network of Marine Sanctuaries in the Bering Sea region to help mitigate the impacts of climate change on marine and freshwater ecosystems while protecting and regenerating fish stocks.
Alaska could also make a major contribution to alternative energy and thereby mitigate the destructive force of climate change to ecosystems and human health and welfare in the state. The awkwardness of the congressional mandate in the Inflation Reduction Act that makes a low-carbon future dependent on a commitment to decades of development of fossil fuels and vast acreages of denuded land from mining is obvious. A study published this month says that over 50% of energy transition minerals are on indigenous lands, which has prompted observations from Homer-based Cook Inlet Keeper like there “is no success in driving an electric vehicle if the resources required to operate it are mined irresponsibly on the lands of marginalized communities and that the expense of salmon landscapes.”
Yet, we can still achieve net zero emissions if we stand up to the climate reform obstructionists and- powerful corporations seeking to expand the industrial development of Alaska and who tell us that we can’t live without oil or “critical” minerals. One way to get to net zero is by returning decision-making to the community level using a just transition strategy.
In order to leave a healthy earth for future generations, we must recognize our interconnected relationship to each other, the lands, waters, and all living beings, and accept guidance from Indigenous voices and place-based knowledge instead of continuing business as usual. We must prioritize careful development with informed consent so our land, air, and water can continue to provide an abundant and traditional and cultural livelihood.
 Nada Culver, ak-blm e-mail (January 27, 2021) referencing: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/26/memorandum-on-tribal-consultation-and-strengthening-nation-to-nation-relationships/
 In a Just Future, We are the Change, CIK (Winter 2022 Newsletter) p. 1.