Alaska’s wildlife has always been our best resource – it was our permanent fund even before we were a state. Wildlife is a truly renewable resource that once dictated how and where we lived. Whaling or fishing in the spring, hunting and fishing in the fall. Out on the ice in the winter to hunt the seals, then walking the hills picking berries in the fall. As the defining focus of our lifestyle for thousands of years, it was an integral part of our culture and our daily lives. Conservation was not some new idea fashioned from mistakes of industrial development past, but practical common sense. If you did not practice conservation and wise use today, you did not eat tomorrow.
A hundred years ago we knew and lived by the true definition of conservation: wise use of our resources. The newer, trendier definition of conservation, according to Merriam-Webster is the “planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.”
Neglect. That clearly defines Alaska’s approach our wildlife for the better part of the past 30 years. When stewardship and “best science” turned to “touch nothing” or even “protect predators at all costs,” we began to neglect our wildlife. The neglect was well meaning at first -- thinking that mother nature knew best and creating an illusion that we could somehow not impact the natural environment around us. We now know that to be impossible in today’s world. Oil spills, pollution, degradation of the atmosphere, climate change, forest fires ... the list of impacts we have on our world is long and in some ways frightening. The only way to work with a natural environment under these conditions is through more active management. Even if our target is no “net impact” it still requires an enormous amount of knowledge and effort on an ecosystem level.
We knew this and it sustained us for thousands of years. We lost that path under the guise of a short-lived school of thought in wildlife biology. It is now haunting us as our wildlife and our ecosystems struggle to find balance and often fail to meet our needs. Why should we choose between a job (development) and conservation, when the “best science” itself is killing our ecosystem? Why can’t we catch up to the modern world of wildlife biology and use all the tools available to us? It would be truly full circle, as that is how we managed our environment for millennia.
When the cure is worse than the illness, we need to find a new cure. The simplest way to do that is to reach back in time to simple approaches that work. Take care of your world and it will provide for you -- by feeding us, by bringing tourists, and by allowing for sustainable development. The irony is not lost on us that this also reflects current practice worldwide in the real best science of wildlife biology. It is past time for Alaska to catch up with the rest of the world and get back to real conservation. No longer can we watch a field we have not planted and hope something will grow on its own.
Charles Parker is president and CEO of Alaska Village Initiatives, a non-profit corporation that promotes the economic well-being of rural Alaskans through economic development, assistance, networking, advocacy, and education.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.