Opinions

Gwich'in people need protection for Draanjik River region

For millennia, the Draanjik Gwich'in people in Alaska's Eastern Interior have known the place that surrounds and sustains them as the land that gives their communities life.

The Draanjik River region extends from the Yukon Territory into an undisturbed wildland that includes 2.4 million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The vast, pristine region includes watershed tributaries of the Yukon River and encompasses the traditional territories of the Draanjik and Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in. In a world where nature is increasingly diminished and threatened by human activities, the Draanjik is that rare place with room to breathe. It looks today much like it did at the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.

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Entirely free from mining, logging or oil and gas development, this land matches like a puzzle-piece with contiguous protected areas across the Canadian border and is subject to two international treaties: one for salmon and one for caribou.  The intact forest and wetlands support more than two dozen species of mammals, including the Porcupine caribou herd that requires large and isolated tracts of intact habitat to thrive. The river supports spawning populations of three species of salmon, including chinook, and is one of five known locations in the Yukon drainage where sheefish spawn.

The Draanjik Gwich'in people have been the keepers of this land for more than 10,000 years, maintaining a culture rooted in respect for an environment that has provided food, water and shelter people need to survive. That relationship with the environment is evident in the Draanjik burial sites, seasonal settlements, early travel routes, and age-old traplines that have become part of the fabric of the place.

BLM recently released its long anticipated Eastern Interior Proposed Resource Management Plan and final Environmental Impact Statement after eight years of planning. Once finalized, the plan will serve as a guide for the next 20 years in the management of approximately 6.5 million acres of public lands. The Upper Draanjik River Subunit makes up about a third of Alaska's Eastern Interior, nearly 2.4 million acres, in a region that has never had a land use plan and one that has sustained indigenous communities for thousands of years.

Two tribes in the Draanjik region, the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government and the Chalkyitsik Village Council, committed significant time, energy, and resources to work closely with BLM through the lengthy planning process to voice concerns and advocate for protections for the Upper Draanjik region. For nearly a decade the tribes encouraged BLM to create a final plan that would preserve the region's subsistence resources, watersheds and the habitats upon which people depend. The tribes have been passionate in defending the traditional homeland of the Gwich'in Athabascan peoples to ensure the lands and cultural resources are sustained for future generations.

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A compromise of 623,000 acres is contained in the proposed Salmon Fork Area of Critical Environmental Concern in Alternative E. It is of great concern to the tribes to maintain this designation. Over the years, the tribal governments have invested limited financial resources and staff to travel from rural villages to Washington, D.C., to educate federal decision-makers on the significance of the Eastern Interior region and to support the tribally nominated Salmon Fork ACEC to protect fragile and irreplaceable subsistence and water resources.

Tribes believe the current plan provides balance that goes a long way toward fulfilling the BLM's trust to federally recognized tribes. The tribes support BLM's decision to recommend both the Salmon Fork ACEC and important watersheds remain closed to development through Alternative E.

While the plan does not include all of the protections the tribes sought, the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government and the Chalkyitsik Village Council acknowledge the plan is a compromise that strikes an appropriate balance between protection of important areas of traditional use in the Upper Draanjik River subunit and development in conformity with the BLM's multiple-use mandate.

The Gwich'in people believe they are inseparable from the land because of their sacred connection, because of their sacred responsibility of looking after the land. The Gwich'in people want to protect the Draanjik because they are part of it, says First Chief Nancy James of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government. "Without the land," she says, "our people cannot survive."

Woodie Salmon is chief of the Chalkyitsik Village Council. Nancy James is chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government.

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