Obama draws fury and joy with Bering Sea protection

(Photo courtesy of Bering Sea Elders Group)
(Photo courtesy of Bering Sea Elders Group)

President Obama today issued an executive order creating the “Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.” The area covers more than 100 thousand square miles off Alaska’s western coast, from the mouth of the Kuskokwim to just north of the Bering Strait. The president’s order withdraws about 40 percent of the area from offshore oil and gas leasing. It also reaffirms an existing ban in the area on bottom-trawl fishing.

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Alaska’s congressional delegation pre-reacted, before the order came out, warning the president not to close off any more of Alaska’s ocean. Sen. Dan Sullivan later said Obama imposed “a unilateral action to hurt Alaskans.”

But for 64-year-old Harry Lincoln, a subsistence hunter from Tununak, this isn’t a case of the president imposing his will on distant seas. Lincoln is chairman of the Bering Strait Elders Group. He says he was stunned to learn the president has acted on the urgent request of the 39 tribes Lincoln represents.

“It’s the happiest moment I ever had in my life!” Lincoln said.

Native American Rights Fund attorney Natalie Landreth says it’s a historic action.

“The level of presidential responsiveness to a group of some of the poorest and smallest native communities in the United States is the real story here,” she said.

She says the story began, not in Washington, but in Bethel, in July of 2015, just before the president’s Alaska visit. The Bering Sea Elders were meeting and Landreth was there as their attorney. The elders, she says, were worried about the decline of sea ice and what the predicted increase in ship traffic would mean for the marine mammals they hunt.

“And then somebody said — I wish I could remember who: ‘Let’s ask the president for help.’ And I said, that’s what you’d call a hail Mary. And then I had to explain what that was,” Landreth recalls

The term is applied to desperate efforts, with almost no chance of success. But, Landreth says, the elders resolved to try.

“Over the past 15 months,” the attorney says, “people from rural Alaska went to the president’s office and said, ‘This is what we need.”

The order, she says, mirrors a resolution the Bering Sea Elders passed in June. Landreth says it can prevent the kind of conflict seen now with the Standing Rock Sioux over the North Dakota Access Pipeline, because a main theme of Obama’s order is the early inclusion of Bering Sea tribes in federal decision making that concerns their region.

“It’s not just the text of the order,” she said. “It’s the fact that the president would spend an inordinate amount of time to try to help these people. I’ve never seen that in my life. I’m not sure that we’re going to see it again.”

The area the president is withdrawing from oil leasing is roughly Norton Sound, the southern strait and around St. Lawrence Island.

Gov. Bill Walker issued a statement saying he supports tribal leaders in their efforts to protect their resources, but that he’s concerned about lost development opportunities for the state.

Landreth says the withdrawal doesn’t harm the economy because, she says, it has been offered and explored in the past, with no results.

“This is not a commercially viable area,” she said. “It just isn’t.”

And now that less likely than ever. Obama used a provision of the offshore leasing act known as 12(a). Drilling opponents maintain these kind of withdrawals are permanent. Alaska Congressman Don Young says he plans to ask the next president, Donald Trump, to reverse this order. That’s legally possible, but historically, these orders tend to endure.

Rachel Waldholz contributed to this story for Anchorage.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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