Rural Alaska

Native group opposes whaling area inclusion in offshore leases

Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, the Native group organized to provide a unified representation and leadership of Arctic Native interests to state and federal policymaking efforts, has raised objection to the inclusion of critical subsistence whaling waters in a recently proposed gas lease draft for the Outer Continental Shelf.

In a letter written to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the group voiced its opposition to the gas lease draft, which includes waters that have long been held out of such lease proposals because of their importance to subsistence whaling.

Voice in particular raised concerns about the Chukchi Sea 25-mile coastal buffer, the Barrow Whaling Area and the Kaktovik Whaling Area, which it said should be preserved even in a draft.

"We recognize that the balance between subsistence and resource development activities can and does occur because we have worked diligently to establish it," Voice President Sayers Tuzroyluk Sr. said in the letter. "For this reason, we were alarmed that subsistence use areas, which are critical to northern Alaska food security and have been identified and agreed to through previous planning processes, resulting in exclusion from earlier leasing programs, were not upheld in the Option 1 of the Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program."

Voice, which formed in 2015, is a 20-member nonprofit corporation representing Alaska's North Slope tribal councils, municipal governments, Alaska Native corporations, a regional nonprofit and the tribal college for the North Slope. Some have been critical of the group's efforts, saying its pro-development stance was not supported universally by the region. Some have questioned surveys the group has conducted, while others have disagreed with the group's support of the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing and development.

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The group said in its letter that while it had not yet taken a stance on resource development in the Outer Continental Shelf, they were unified in their belief that traditional knowledge should be considered in decisions affecting the region.

"Meaningful consultation is key to this balance and with respect to the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf announcement on the (Gas Leasing Draft Proposal Program), we feel the concerns of the local organizations were ignored and that deeply disturbs us," Tuzroyluk wrote.

Last summer, Zinke visited the Alaska Arctic and spoke to the importance of Alaska Native input in decision-making for the region, causing some leaders to praise the interior secretary following decades of agenda-driven leadership that did not consider the needs of those who live in the region.

Voice has long called for responsible resource development in the region but said such development could only occur when "the preservation of our way of life, our food security, and our subsistence culture are the highest priorities."

Prudhoe Bay development was held up as an example of such collaboration, where the Open Water Season Conflict Avoidance Act, which has been in place for decades, has led to safe development that minimizes impact on subsistence activities by local people in the region.

Tuzroyluk wrote that several entities raised the importance of preserving the areas in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's request for information for the proposed lease program, which will cover 2019 through 2024 oil and gas leases in offshore waters.

"Decisions and activity in our region must be based on consultation, coordination and engagement with Alaska Natives," he wrote.

BOEM announced last month that the Draft Proposed Program in support of the National Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing program will be the subject of a 23-city public meeting tour, including an Anchorage meeting on Feb. 21 at the Dena'ina Center from 6-10 p.m. In addition, comments can be submitted through March 9 online.