This week, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke spent time visiting our region in Alaska’s Arctic. Throughout his trip, Zinke remarked about the potential of our state, the central role Alaska Natives must play in realizing that potential, and the need for government to “get out of the way” and allow local peoples to chart their own course. We couldn’t agree more.
Alaska Natives have become disheartened by pledges of consultation only to read about decisions affecting our region in national newspapers; statements advocating for economic opportunity in the Arctic while closing our region with the stroke of a pen; and agendas driven by the effects of climate change in the Arctic without regard for the people most affected by them.
We’ve grown weary of Presidents, environmentalists and special interest groups doing things “for us.” In reality, their actions are often self-serving of their agendas and we are nothing more than a prop in their campaign. As Secretary Zinke pointed out, it is the people of Alaska and the Arctic that are the real resource, not the polar bears that fund global environmental campaigns or the massive resource potential of our lands and waters. We are worth protecting, and we appreciate the actions by the Secretary to finally give us a seat at the table. After all, it is our table.
We also appreciate Secretary Zinke taking the time to listen to us about the needs of our people. What we need is balance, consultation, jobs, a stable economy and a healthy environment. Most of all, we need and deserve the ability to drive policies and activities in our region instead of outside interest groups and policy makers in Washington D.C. driving it for us.
Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat (VOICE) was established to advocate for increased collaboration on activities in our region – like the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – reasonable regulations and mitigation measures, and maximum control over our subsistence way of life. Too often, groups have attempted to act “in our best interests” without recognizing we are fully capable. We can and do speak for ourselves on behalf of our people, region and future generations of Iñupiat.
It is in our best interest to have a healthy environment and a healthy economy. We will not be victims of climate change but we will also not allow our people to return to the harsh way of life before the momentous discovery of Prudhoe Bay. The Iñupiat are an adaptive people. We are and will continue to evolve to our environment and the opportunities and challenges it brings.
We want a sustainable future, and have always held that resource development and environmental protection can and do co-exist. After all, we’ve been orchestrating this balance since the discovery of oil in our backyard decades ago. We cannot afford to ignore the benefits that resource development provides us. From jobs, schools, local governments, infrastructure investments, Alaska Native businesses and scientific research to simple amenities such as running water and fuel for our whaling boats – we recognize that modern and innovative resource development literally powers our region.
As one of his last actions in Alaska, Secretary Zinke spoke about the importance of collaboration and consultation with Alaska Natives, and signed Secretarial Order 3352 providing for clean and safe development of energy resources in Alaska and beyond, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily prevent development, and constrain job growth and economic development.
Thank you, Secretary Zinke, for your commitment to restoring trust among Alaska Natives and for taking concrete steps toward allowing decisions in our region to be driven by the local people. VOICE looks forward to working with you and the U.S. Department of Interior over the next four years to improve consultation, co-management and science-based action in the Arctic.
Sayers Tuzroyluk Sr. is president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization established to provide direct input from the Iñupiat people in matters of Arctic policy. VOICE’s membership includes 20 of the 28 entities from across the North Slope including tribal councils, municipal governments and Alaska Native corporations.