Elders group speaks out on offshore leasing order
A group of Elders from across the western coast of the state are condemning President Donald Trump's recent executive order pushing back certain protections for the Bering Sea in terms of offshore oil and gas development.
"Our stance still stands. We'll keep going forward with it. Nothing changed. We'll keep fighting for it," said Yup'ik Elder and Bering Sea Elders Group Chair Harry Lincoln, of Tununak.
In the final days of his term, President Barack Obama signed one of his last executive orders. Called "Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience," it put in place protections for a huge swath of offshore area, removing it from consideration in future oil and gas lease sales.
As the Sounder previously reported, Obama's order, which Alaska's congressional delegation spoke out against at the time, withdrew waters in Norton Sound, up to Wales, and around St. Lawrence Island from further oil and gas leasing — more than 40,000 square miles in total.
President Trump revoked that order last April — a move which the Elders group strongly condemned at the time. Now, the administration is pushing to consider the offshore area more closely for future sales. In an executive order signed earlier this month, the president directed the Department of Interior to review the five-year offshore lease sale plan in both Arctic and Atlantic waters.
"Our view is somewhat bewilderment on behalf of the Elders, but also anger because the Elders are not speaking for themselves. They're chosen by 40 different tribal councils and they've made it very clear to the administration, to the agency, and to our delegation that they did not want this. And all of that was completely ignored," said Natalie Landreth with the Native American Rights Fund, which has been providing counsel to the group.
The Elders group represents dozens of tribes from across the western portion of the state, all of which have spoken out against including the northern Bering Sea in any future development plans. In contrast, industry representatives, state officials and both corporate and governmental bodies from across the Arctic have supported the idea of opening up more waters for potential future exploration.
"The ecosystem is very, very fragile. If you disturb that, it will be years and years of coming back to its original shape. If an ecosystem is very fragile for any animals or fish out there, that's going to be affected heavily and not just for a day or two — for years," explained Lincoln. "That is our main concern. If this lease opens up this area to any exploration out there, the impact is going to be immense and that is what our Elders are really up against. That's where we get our food. We survive on that. The cash economy out there is not that available. We have to live off the sea and the land to survive. Survival is of the utmost importance out there in this area. It's a very big burden."
Landreth said the group met with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) last October and has consistently called for the area to remain off-limits.
"The group submitted over 200 pages of comments, previous tribal council resolutions, other organization resolutions in the comment period for this draft plan," said Landreth.
Lincoln noted representatives from the Elders group plan to hold meetings with both state and the federal officials in the months to come. They have already spoken with Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, they noted in a release, and are hoping they will convey the group's message to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
"I think, first of all, the Elders will continue to — as they have so far — make their voices known and their views known to the appropriate people," said Landreth. "If you ignore people for long enough, eventually they start to take other steps. Those other steps will be to speak out against people who are ignoring them, first of all. That's one possibility. That's a little too far down the road (to know). But, realistically, if this lease sale continues, the coastal tribes will be suing the Department of Interior to stop it. They don't want to go to Plan Z — that's what we call it. It's the end of the road. They want to work this out with people. But, if it doesn't, they're prepared to take all legal means to defend it."