After four years, nearly $2 million, and countless hours of interviews, field studies and research, the Northwest Arctic Borough's Subsistence Mapping Project is nearly ready for unveiling.
The project will produce a nearly 600-page atlas documenting subsistence-use areas (where people hunt, fish and gather by season) and important ecological areas (places where animals feed, breed, raise young and migrate) in seven of the region's coastal communities -- Kivalina, Noatak, Selawik, Noorvik, Deering, Buckland and Kotzebue.
With the landscape transforming rapidly due to a myriad of factors -- changing climate, increased shipping traffic and a wide array of proposed development -- the project will offer a tool for decision makers when it comes to balancing conservation and economic development.
The maps and accompanying text reflect data gathered from existing studies and field-based scientific research documenting local traditional knowledge of subsistence and important ecological areas. The research involved 231 individual interviews and 21 meetings with more than 49 advisory group members in the seven participating communities. The members were nominated by local leaders for their knowledge of hunting, fishing, and gathering, knowledge of the Iñupiaq language, and number of years in the community. The advisory groups also provided traditional knowledge reflected in the maps and checked information collected from the interviews to confirm the maps accurately display traditional knowledge of subsistence use and important ecological areas in each community.
Recently, the project has expanded its scope and, with the help of NANA Regional Corp. and assistance from two of the community's Regional Elders' Councils, will map traditional Iñupiaq place names. This development will be important for not only preserving the language and allowing for an accurate and detailed educational tool, but aiding in lifesaving efforts through search and rescue and emergency response purposes.
The Subsistence Mapping Project began in early 2011 and was slated for completion next month -- though a two-month extension was sought and approved, pushing the completion date to July.
Currently, the project is about 90 percent complete and has received funding from the federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program ($1.4 million), the Oak Foundation ($360,000), ConocoPhillips ($100,000) and Shell Oil ($500,000).
The Northwest Arctic Borough is the governing body behind the venture with a steering committee consisting of hunters and scientists, and local village-based advisory groups having the bulk of the input.
The finished product will have maps, text and photos collected by local residents of subsistence living.
"Those (photos) really provide an authentic depiction of how our communities hunt, fish and gather," said project coordinator Zach Stevenson.
Nearly 1,000 people showed interest in submitting photos for the project with 300 photos submitted and 50 selected for the final report.
The project also supported the work of filmmaker Sarah Betcher, who produced a film in 2014 called "The Effects of Weather and Climate on Subsistence Communities." Betcher visited many of the communities participating in the project and wrote the Local Voices section of the atlas. The section provides a brief history for each participating community and local traditional knowledge perspectives on the importance of traditional hunting, fishing and gathering reflecting information collected during her interviews.
"Fundamentally, it's about listening," said Stevenson last week. "You have to deliberately make the time and practice the patience to provide a way for those that you're working with to share their ideas and concerns.
"That strong local engagement is really essential to ensuring that the borough has meaningful and scientifically-defensible data to help inform our maps and our final product."
With many Native and non-Native voices, and science- and non-science-oriented details, an editor was hired recently to give the document a uniform tone, Stevenson explained.
"It's essential that our final product is relevant to all audiences," he said. "We wanted to allow for some additional time to complete that, hence the two extra months."
Once the editing is done, the atlas will be up for review from various tribal members, government officials and 49 advisory group members, and final edits made before it's released to the public.
The maps were completed over 2014 and will be stored in a password-protected geographic information system (GIS) database.
"We want to do right by our communities and I think we've gone a long way to do that, and to help set a model that can be replicated for future research in the region," he said, adding that 95 percent of the locals interviewed have given their permission to use their information in the atlas.
Also, over the last year or so, the Northwest Arctic Borough has initiated a science department modeled after the North Slope Borough Science Initiative, for the purpose of producing studies addressing science and traditional knowledge. Shell Oil pledged a large amount of money toward the science program over the next five years to support research in the region.
It's another way for the borough to combine scientific and traditional knowledge to better grasp the changes taking place in the Arctic, and develop meaningful research that will benefit both subsistence living and potential development, Stevenson said.
"That is an opportunity that has been accelerated by the subsistence mapping project," he said.
Mapping project staff was able to use some of the funding from Shell to conduct subsistence youth education activities in the seven participating communities in response to local requests for involving the region's young people in the project.
"The objective of the subsistence youth activities is to help document and share traditional knowledge of hunting and fishing and gathering with younger people who … are getting out less than their parents' generation."
Depending on the season, youth have had the opportunity to go out seal hunting, egg gathering, fishing and collecting firewood for elders with local instruction and a developed lesson plan.
Students in all communities across the region are now encouraged to enter the mapping project's essay contest to document what they have learned through participating in the activities, Stevenson said.
Seven winners will be selected and travel to Washington, D.C., in June to visit the White House, the National Museum of the American Indian and more.
The project also provided the opportunity for borough residents to attain their captain's license through the U.S. Coast Guard so that researchers would be able to hire more locals to assist with data collection in the communities.
Looking ahead, the mapping project can provide a model for other Alaskan communities working to protect subsistence and promote economic development. Currently the communities of Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, and Kobuk are not part of the project.
"The people of the Upper Kobuk region, like elsewhere in the borough, heavily use traditional foods to feed their families," Stevenson said. "They also face the opportunities and challenges associated with economic development -- in this case, the potential for roads and potential future mining in the Ambler Mining District."
The long-term applications of the borough's Subsistence Mapping Project are such that local decision makers, industry, state and federal agencies can be more aware of what's around them when planning decisions are being made. The project was recognized for its promising approach to planning in an April 2013 Department of the Interior Report to the President regarding Managing for the Future in a Rapidly Changing Arctic. Interest from local search and rescue groups, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has already been piqued for initiatives like oil-spill response on land and at sea.
In that regard, "the borough will have a meaningful tool that can help to conserve and preserve natural resources and save lives in the event of an emergency."
As four years of work on the project draws to a close, Stevenson said it's powerful to see an unprecedented undertaking like this mapping project take shape and its functions already being sought from local tribal and city governments, as well as from mining and oil industries, and even the White House, he said.
"I think it's a demonstration of how, when you effectively unite the many different interests for a common goal, you can create a product that has value and meaning to a broad number of audiences. Personally, this has been the most gratifying work I've ever been involved in."
The database that has been developed as a result of this project has been described as the largest of its kind that exists anywhere.
"We have mapped subsistence information by season and by species in seven villages … and we've also mapped important ecological areas … and with that information you can quickly tell what places are important to borough residents."
It's an important tool that puts the borough in a unique position to know exactly how to mitigate impacts when outside interests come knocking.
The final project will be available at the end of July.
"We have only come this far because of the tremendous work of the phenomenal and very diverse group of people."
Local hunters and gatherers, tribal governments, city governments, elected officials, lawmakers, policy analysts and filmmakers have all worked together for the project.
"I sensed the potential, but to see that unfolding has been tremendously humbling and gratifying," he said.
"Now is the time for rural Alaska to really shine."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.