The Co-management of Alaskan Resources

By: Taylor McClean
November 10, 2010

Since Westerners first made contact with Alaskan Natives in the early 1800’s, there has been conflict over Alaska’s resources. While the subjects of conflict have changed over the years – from the Russian fur trade of seals to the present conflict of subsistent hunting – the underlying sources of conflict have remained the same. Westerners from the beginning have seen Alaska as a pure, ideal environment that needs to be preserved as a source of national pride (book). The problem, however, is that Alaska is inhabited by natives, who have a very different view of their surroundings. To them, Alaska is not a source of nostalgia for a “pure” country, but a source of food and a way of life (book). While efforts have been made, mostly through co-management, to appease both those who wish to manage resources and the Alaskan Natives who simply want to preserve their way of life, conflicts between the two parties are still abundant. Because the current problems of resource management in Alaska ultimately stem from these opposing views of the environment, solutions like co-management can only work when we stop romanticizing and patronizing Alaska and its people. This paper seeks to look at not only the surface problems of resource management and the current solutions, but to also analyze the underlying issues, highlight the problems with implemented solutions, and suggest new ideas for how to solve this problem.

The current issue in Alaskan resource management is that as the state seeks to control resources for preservation (and in the past for the global economy), Natives increasingly feel that their lifestyle is repressed and endangered. This is best seen in two examples – management of caribou herds and of brown bears (Spaeder, 2005). Before moving on to these examples, however, we must first understand Alaska’s current wildlife refuge laws.

Through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, Alaskan Natives lost their claims to 90% of Alaskan land, including all hunting and fishing rights, in exchange for 960 million dollars and a land grant for only 10% of the state. It was not until almost ten years later that the Natives gained subsistence hunting rights through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. With this law, Natives and rural non-natives were guaranteed the use of public lands for traditional and subsistence hunting along with priority access to these resources. Eventually, however, the federal government took over the responsibility to manage hunting and fishing on public lands, declaring in 1990 that the law giving priority to Natives and rural non-natives to resources was unconstitutional, as the Alaskan Constitution states that all citizens should be given equal access (Spaeder, 2005; Van Daele et al., 2001).

As the situation stands now, Natives still have the right to hunt and fish on public lands, just no longer with priority access. Despite this promise, though, Natives have still felt their hunting rights repressed by non-local wardens and by their inability to have any say in how resources should be managed, as laws regarding resource management have so far not taken the Natives’ needs or views into consideration (Spaeder, 2005).

As a result, Natives have resorted to ignoring the wardens and law through illegal hunting, failure to fill out the proper paperwork, and through simply avoiding those who would enforce the law. This would seem to continue for eternity until in the 1980’s, conflict arose between Natives and the government over caribou hunting, bringing us back to our first example. After performing aerial searches to monitor the population of a small caribou herd in 1984 and 1985, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game determined that the herd had decreased from 200 individuals to only 75 in just a year, and consequently closed the caribou hunting season. Natives greatly opposed this finding, arguing that there were actually hundreds more caribou than reported and that the population was actually growing. They charged the ADF&G with surveying too small an area and said that the results were inaccurate, as caribou are hard to count from the air. Natives continued to illegally hunt caribou, however, until in 1990 they made their first official stand against the government. Because of a decrease in salmon, they needed to be able to hunt more caribou for food. In addition, Natives were becoming tired of the repressive law enforcement and by this point, the herd was up to 1000 individuals, at which time the ADF&G had promised to reopen caribou hunting. Village leaders wanted a hunting permit to allow them to legally hunt caribou, but when they approached the Alaska Board of Game, not only were they denied but were given no indication of when they might be able to hunt caribou. As a result, one of the villages filed a law suit against the Alaska Board of Game and received a temporary permit to harvest 50 caribou (Spaeder, 2005).

This lawsuit was a wake-up call to the government agencies that they had to cooperate with the native villages, or else face continued law suits. With this realization, a co-management organization was formed where village leaders and government officials worked together to negotiate an appropriate amount of caribou for harvest every year. (Spaeder defines co-management as the “sharing of management responsibilities between community-level and state-level actors,” or in this case, between Alaskan Natives and the government). Natives also began joining researchers on excursions to determine caribou populations, and a new system of administering permits was also formed (Spaeder, 2005).

While co-management appears to be the perfect solution to the caribou hunting problem, this is not the case, and in fact there continue to be conflicts over resources, including an example with brown bears and yet another issue with caribou. In the brown bear example, natives requested less strict regulations on the hunting of brown bears, both because they felt the need to harvest more brown bears and because they believed in their culture that bears could “hear through the ground,” and therefore, if a hunter talked about his plans beforehand, the bear would know. Natives argued that having to obtain a permit meant making hunting plans known to the bears. While the USFWS agreed to reducing brown bear regulations, it also decided to implement a research project determine the effects of hunting on brown bear populations (Spaeder, 2005; Van Daele et al, 2001).

The research project, however, only made the conflict worse. Natives believed that the research was disrespectful and harmful to the bears, that bears were harassed during the process, and that the research was unnecessary as they believed the brown bear population was increasing. The USFWS was willing to engage in co-management, but before the two parties could do so, the Alaskan regional office announced that the project would continue. Various lawsuits followed and failed, until finally the Secretary of the Interior reversed the regional office’s decision and suspended the project for one year. As a result, Natives stopped all lawsuits and another co-management group was formed, resulting in a new agreement on the management of brown bears (Spaeder, 2005; Van Daele et al, 2001).

The previous examples of caribou and brown bears have shown the surface problems and current solutions to Alaskan resource management. However, the root of this conflict is because of the differences in how the government and the natives view the same environment and because of a general disregard for the native ecological knowledge. Westerners have viewed Alaska, and the wild in general, as a place to preserve from society so that it might remain pure and ideal. In contrast, Natives view the wild as a source of food, and therefore a way of life (Catton, 1997). They even view animals differently – according to one native group, caribou used to be people and people used to be caribou. We were one and the same, and therefore, mutual respect was demanded (Kofinas, 2005). Brown bears are similarly viewed – not only are they believed to “hear through the ground,” as mentioned earlier, but are also seen as “non-human persons,” (as are all animals, in fact), who have “both great physical power and special numinous powers,” and deserve to be treated with respect (Spaeder, 2005). Even our ideas of animal populations differ – we, as westerners, believe that we can monitor and manipulate populations through human intervention, while Alaskan Natives understand animals “to increase and decrease according to their own rules and patterns,” (Spaeder, 2005).

Despite these differences in perception of the world, Alaskan Natives do have valuable indigenous knowledge that the government has ignored. As in the first caribou case, biologists made assumptions on caribou populations even though they were lacking a significant amount of information. The Natives, if consulted, could have filled in these gaps, as they know from hunting experience that caribou populate on a “boom and burst cycle,” where they will disappear to the interior and later emerge in larger numbers (Spaeder, 2005).

As if these different viewpoints did not cause enough problems, even the way the government (or Westerners) have viewed Natives has been the source of conflict. According to Theodore Catton (1997), we have viewed Natives as “natural conservationists,” in that they protect their environment from change and degradation, when in fact they are no different from us and equally modify their environment. This can be seen in the first caribou example, when illegal caribou hunters were publicized as “selfish poachers whose actions were threatening the survival of the herd,” (Spaeder, 2005). In other words, we do not like it when we realize that our romanticized view of the “nobel savage,” is just one of our social constructions. As a result, we somehow see it as our right to take away native people’s resources when they do not match our ideals.

Even though the Alaskan National Park system is far from perfect, it has made more of an effort to be sensitive to the needs of Natives than has any other park system. For example, most of the continental U.S. National Parks required the removal of Native Americans for the formation of the park. So far, no Natives in Alaska have been removed and forced to relocate (Catton, 1997). Instead, co-management is increasingly seen as a solution to the conflict between Natives’ need to use the land and the government’s wish to preserve it. Co-management has ended lawsuits, opened the eyes of both sides to new perspectives, and been effective in finding suitable solutions to both parties. Communication pathways have also been opened between Natives and the government, as many Natives accompany government employed biologists on research projects. As one research team on brown bears discovered, Natives and biologists/the government share a common “concern for the welfare of the bears and their habitat,” (Van Daele, et al., 2001). Since both sides have a different idea of how to reach this common goal, co-management allows them to negotiate and see new perspectives.

Co-management therefore seems like the solution to all resource management problems. Unfortunately, the solution is not so simple. As Kofinas argues in the second 1993 caribou conflict, co-management has a serious legitimacy problem: “Power sharing arrangements and their attendant problems of legitimacy are neither simple nor are they a panacea for harmony,” (Kofinas, 2005). According to Kofinas, the entire co-management group can crumble if there are questions about the legitimacy of the governing institutions, of the knowledge used to make decisions, or even of the people who make up the organization. For example, any decision made by the co-management group may be rendered null if the scientific information it is based on is found to be incorrect or compromised. As for an example as to how a person can be delegitimized, Kofinas tells of a native member of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, who brought the media in to help influence a decision on caribou research. This member was then “vilified by the group for breaching the norms of the co-management process,” because he not only put his own legitimacy at stake but also the entire Board’s legitimacy as well. By publicly opposing members of the board, the member risked showing internal conflict, which would delegitimize the board to the government or “senior bureaucrats,” who might no longer take the board seriously (Kofinas, 2005). In addition to the legitimacy problem, other issues, such as oil development in this case, can also complicate the co-management system. For example, an argument for the protection of caribou also meant an argument against oil development because the same data used to make the argument for caribou protection would also be the very reason why oil development should not proceed (Kofinas, 2005).

Obviously, co-management is therefore not a perfect cure for the problem – the entire system can be delegitimized if even a small aspect of the process loses legitimacy, and the decisions made by the board are also strongly influence by outside factors. While this is the case with most organizations, there are ways to improve the co-management process. One of the most obvious solutions would be to keep the media out of the process – instead of gaining sympathy towards the “noble savage” image, it has proven to more often characterize natives as self-centered (for example, the natives who illegally hunted caribou in the first case and the native member who tried to use the media to gain support in the second caribou case). The media, however, is not necessarily to blame for this image. It is westerners own constructions of natives that is at fault – they are not the “protectors of the environment,” that we would like to believe. We need to realize that our romanticized and patronizing view of Natives is not only incorrect but unjust. Just because we have realized that they too impact their environment does not give us the right to take away their resources and therefore their way of life – we do worse to our environment everyday and face no consequences. In addition, we need to realize that the environment is not pure and unchanging, and that there is nothing we can do to preserve it in time. That is not to say that nothing needs protection, because our natural resources do need protection from wasteful and unnecessary use – we just need to recognize that we have always had a part in influencing nature.

We also need to be more understanding and respectful of Natives’ cultures. For example, one brown bear research team discovered that things would have gone much more smoothly if they had first realized Natives’ perspectives on brown bears – listed first on their things learned, in fact, was that “prior to starting a project, be cognizant of the cultural and sociological ramifications of the research,” (Van Daele et al., 2001). They also realized that there is a problem with the system, which if co-management is to work, must be solved – the researchers had little opportunity to first learn of Alaskan Natives’ feelings toward research because of a lack of funding (Van Daele et al., 2001).

Westerners are not the only ones who need improvement, though. Natives need to be less resistant of research. By researching to know more about natural resources like caribou and brown bears, we will better know how to preserve them, which means preserving a source of food for Natives and therefore preserving their lifestyle. The best way to open Natives to research is to integrate Western science with traditional beliefs. As Barnhardt and Kawagley argue,
“Native people may need to understand Western society, but not at the expense of what they already know and the way they have come to know it. Non-Native people, too, need to recognize the coexistence of multiple worldviews and knowledge systems, and find ways to understand and relate to the world in its multiple dimensions and varied perspectives.”

Western science and native knowledge should be integrated into the educational curriculum, so that when these students are on co-management boards they not only still have their tradition values but also an understanding of the way western science works. Likewise, native knowledge should be integrated into western science and research so that as we are more respectful of Natives, the more likely we will be able to cooperate and work towards a common goal.

In summary, co-management is an excellent solution to the problem of who manages natural resources. While it has its problems, such as being influenced by outside factors and a vulnerability to delegitimization, these problems are typical of any management board. Co-management can be improved if we stop patronizing and romanticizing Alaska and its people, recognize the value of their traditional knowledge, integrate this knowledge with western science through education and including natives on research expeditions, and avoid the media as it often only vilifies Natives.  By doing this, we address the underlying issues of the resource management problem, and by addressing these issues, we can better solve the surface conflicts.

Barnhardt, R.., Kawagley, A. (2005). Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Alaska Native Ways of Knowing. Anthropology and Education Quaterly,vol. 36, pgs 8-23.

Catton, T. (1997). Inhabited Wilderness: Indians, Eskimos, and National Parks in Alaska. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico (book source)

Kofinas, G. (2005). Caribou Hunters and Researchers at the Co-management Interface: Emergent Dilemmas and the Dynamics of Legitimacy in Power Sharing. Anthropologica, vol. 47, pgs 179-196.

Spaeder, J. (2005). Co-management in a Landscape of Resistance: The Political Ecology of Wildlife Management in Western Alaska. Anthropologica, vol. 47, pgs 165-178

Van Daele, L., Morgart, J., Hinkes, M., Kovach, S., Denton, J., Kaycon, R. (2001). Grizzlies, Eskimos, and Biologists: Cross-Cultural Bear Management in Southwest Alaska. Ursus, vol. 12, pgs 141-152

Taylor McClean PhotoTaylor McClean is also a Senior Biology major at Guilford College, and additionally has minors in Integrated Science and Environmental Studies. Taylor’s research has involved marine mammal stranding and marine conservation, and the extensive study of bacteriophages.

I have been honest and have observed no dishonesty.
-Taylor McClean

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