Bering Sea Western Interior Resource Management Plan Response
NBITWC is closely monitoring and coordinating the Tribal response to a current Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposal that poses a serious threat to subsistence resources and ecological integrity on the Seward Peninsula. In March 2019, the BLM released the first version of its Bering Sea Western Interior Resource Management Plan. The Plan – which is consistent with the Trump administration’s approach of opening public lands to extractive development regardless of the ecological and human rights consequences – will govern management of these critical and delicate ecosystems for the next 20 to 30 years.
The planning process, and the public comment period that followed, failed to adequately include and consult with the Alaska Native tribes that live in the planning area and depend on its natural resources for their physical and cultural survival. The result is a Resource Management Plan that revokes 50 year old public lands protections for sensitive fish and wildlife habitats under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, opening over 46 million acres to mining and other development while removing protections from Areas of Critical Concern (ACECs), ignoring local communities’ requests that such designations remain in place.
Much of the Plan’s impacted area is the traditional land of over 69 Alaska Tribes, who have lived in the region for thousands of years and continue to sustainably manage the fish, plants, animals, and land. The Tribes are unified in their opposition to the land give away and have warned the BLM of the potential impacts on water resources, wildlife, future generations and their subsistence economy. During the land use planning process, local Tribes asked the BLM to designate more than 7 million acres of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) that would close mining in these areas in order to protect important watersheds and traditional tribal lands vital to community survival. The RMP’s Preferred Alternative, however, did not list a single watershed nominated by local Tribes and communities for ACEC status. In fact, no ACECs were designated in the Preferred Alternative at all, leaving the entire planning area open to mining and other development. The failure of this RMP to adequately protect these unique watersheds could have serious impacts on wildlife habitat and water quality for critical fish resources and community water sources. In fact, the BLM itself admitted that its Preferred Alternative will result in numerous adverse impacts from the destructive activities that it allows.
Because of the unprecedented impacts to natural and subsistence resources, there were multiple requests to extend the comment period on the DRAFT BSWI RMP. Regardless of these requests and DOI’s promise, made at the Tanana Chiefs Conference Annual meeting in March 2019, to modify the timeline allowing for Cooperating Agency meetings with Alaska Tribes to consider edits to the Draft plan, the BLM stuck to a mere 60 day comment period and the Record of Decision was complete by November of 2019.
NBITWC, whose board of directors includes members from tribal communities located within the Norton Bay Watershed which is within the planning area, has been closely monitoring the process, submitted comments on the RMP to voice the concerns of the tribes about the negative impacts to ecosystems and human health of which the current proposed RMP puts them at risk. and has been coordinating a response with several of the tribes on the Seward Peninsula. Additionally, NBITWC is partnering with the Native Village of Elim to secure funding to draft a climate risk assessment of the impacts of rising temperatures and mining development within critical salmon habitat on public lands.
Finally, last April, NBITWC and other tribal organizations and tribes sent a letter to the BLM’s Alaska State Director requesting a hold on the process for issuing the Final BSWI RMP due to the national and state emergency declarations and because many rural Alaskan communities are under travel and staff restriction and have been otherwise substantially distracted by the need to respond to the Covid19 emergency. In recognition of the fact that the tribes cannot realistically participate in the planning process at this time while their resources are focused on supporting their communities through the current health and economic crisis, the letter requests that the BLM place the process on hold.