Bering Sea Elders condemn executive order on leasing
A group of Bering Sea Elders is condemning a recent executive order by President Donald Trump that dismantles one of Barack Obama's final acts as president.
On April 28, Trump signed an order that revoked Obama's executive order, "Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience," which the former president enacted in December.
"Now there is no seat at the table for Alaskans or our local knowledge," the Bering Sea Elders Group, which represents 40 tribes from Alaska's western coast, wrote in a statement. "Alaska's own congressional delegation stood by as local Alaskan voices were removed from decisions that affect our lives, and now we are at the mercy of federal decision-makers only."
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.
When it was first signed, Obama's order also drew the ire of local and tribal representatives from the Arctic Slope, who saw it as further limiting resource development opportunities for the state.
However, the order also established the Bering Sea Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council, which would have been an 11-member body tasked with advising federal stakeholders on managing more than 100,000 square miles of Bering Sea waters.
Those waters extend from the coast just west of Dillingham, near Goodnews Bay, up around Nunivak Island, out to and encompassing St. Matthew Island, north from the coast out to beyond St. Lawrence Island, up through the Bering Strait north of Nome and Wales, and nearly to Kotzebue Sound at the southern reaches of the Chukchi Sea.
Trump's order also revokes the creation of the tribal advisory council for those waters.
"This is not good," wrote Elder Frank Oxereok, of Wales. "Everything we have worked for has pretty much gone out the window. Indigenous people rely on resources in areas that we live. This may destroy our way of life."
Oxereok, like many of the Elders, specifically called out Alaska's elected representatives for supporting the move.
"We put the Senators and Congressman in D.C.," said Yup'ik Elder and group Chair Harry Lincoln from Tununak, in the statement. "We have depended upon our Legislators for help and they did not do their job. I feel like they are retaliating against us for getting this order through the previous administration."
He added: "I will never vote for these people again."
The Native American Rights Fund has provided counsel to the group throughout the process of pushing the Obama order through to completion. The group, along with the Association of Village Council Presidents and Kawerak Inc., jointly drafted resolutions they brought before the Obama administration in a number of meetings before his order was signed.
Staff Attorney Natalie Landreth, who worked closely with the group, expressed her disappointment with the recent decision.
"I assume the delegation (does) not intend to run for re-election when their terms are out," she wrote. "Otherwise, they would not have taken such a drastic step to undermine the efforts of their own communities who fought long and hard for a seat at the table in federal decision-making. Who exactly are they serving here? Because it is not their constituents, who are actually impacted by this reckless decision."
When Obama's order was first signed, the group's executive director, Elder Fred Phillip from Kwigillingok, told the Sounder he was concerned then-President-Elect Trump would try to reverse the order, which he has now done.
He said at the time his group and their partners would not give up the fight.
"Even though we're seeing this today, we're really looking to the future and saying we want to leave something behind for our children and their children as far as resources," Phillip told the Sounder in December. "We didn't want to mess things up for them. We wanted to make sure that they are provided for in the future because they are the future."
Chair Lincoln echoed his words, saying the reason the group formed so many years ago and had been pushing for both protections and a seat at the table was for the sake of both the resource and the children and their children to come.
"We have seen changes here," Lincoln said in December. "As far as what we are preserving now, we are preserving it for a very good reason and that is to preserve our resources in the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait for the next generations. If we lose that, what is there out there?"
Now, facing the same effects of climate change they have been watching encroach on their land and ways of life for years, the Elders say they must try once again to find a way to have a say in what happens "in and to our waters."
"There can be no other conclusion other than Alaska's tribes, and coastal Alaskans in particular, were targeted and silenced," the group wrote. "The message is clear: the agendas of the 'existing regulatory authorities' are more important than our way of life."
In a January meeting with members of the administration and the congressional delegation, the group said its Elder representatives had asked to be notified if the Trump administration even started to discuss revoking the order, so they could participate in the discussions.
"We were never contacted," they wrote.
"We have always gotten what we need from the Bering Sea. Subsistence here is very fragile. If you destroy one part of it, it's gone," said Lincoln in December. "That is why we need to keep this ecosystem very protected. That is what we fought so hard for."
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.