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History of the Program

"If you would like to understand anything, observe its beginning and its development."
-Aristotle

The Bering Strait — view from space (NOAA photo). The Bering Strait — view from space (NOAA photo).

Birth of an idea of a joint U.S. and Russian protected area in the Bering Strait region

In the first part of the 20th century, the significance of the Bering Land Bridge in the Bering Strait region and the concept of Beringia were widely recognized by the world's scientific community. Despite interest in sharing scientific research and connecting cultures divided by the strait, chilly relations between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the 1970s–1980s prevented cooperation in the region. Then, in 1984–1985 Walter Orr Roberts, statesman and American pioneer in the area of atmospheric and environmental sciences, proposed establishment of a U.S.–U.S.S.R. "research park" in the Bering Strait region as a means to warm relations between the two nations.

In 1986, under the authority of the 1972 U.S.–U.S.S.R. Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection, a working group was established to address "Conservation and Management of Natural and Cultural Heritage." Specific activities, characterized as themes, were developed by the working group in protocols in June and October 1987. The Beringian Heritage project came out of the theme entitled "Research, Conservation, and Management of the Beringian Heritage."

In 1989, an American and Soviet planning team presented the concept for an international park during a tour of Native villages in Northwest Alaska and the Chukotka Peninsula in Russia. A report of their efforts, including recommendations for an international park, can be found in the Beringian Heritage Reconnaissance Study published in 1990.

The Alaska Regional Office of the National Park Service designed and submitted a proposal for a unique research program called the Shared Beringian Heritage Program in 1990. The proposal was funded in 1991 and began a four-year initiative to bring Russian and American scientists, resource managers, and Native people together in a long-term, integrated study of traditional lifeways, biogeography, and landscape history on the Seward and Chukotka Peninsulas (Schaaf 1992).

"A Bridge of Hope" — Early efforts to establish an international park

At a summit conference on June 1, 1990, in Washington, D.C., U. S. President Bush and Soviet President Gorbachev announced their intention to create an international park spanning the Bering Strait. President Bush called the proposed park "a bridge of hope" between the two countries, and President Gorbachev stated that the park would provide a path "toward a healthier international environment." The summit conference agreement called for cooperation in the study of ecology, archaeology, and cultural heritage on both sides of the strait. It was established that any existing protected areas that might be included in the future transboundary protected area will remain under the jurisdiction of the country of their location. The future transboundary protected area would encourage cooperative efforts among park managers and scientists, ease the travel restrictions between the nations for research, and assist with joint projects on issues of common concern.

The Russian counterparts undertook the first steps toward the establishment of a transboundary protected area. In September 1990 the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. issued a decree to create an international park and delegated the responsibility of carrying out the decree to the Council of Ministers of the Russian Republic. The State Committee for Environmental Protection of the Russian Republic was identified as the lead organization for the establishment of the park. Considering that there were no national parks in Eastern Chukotka, the Committee for Environmental Protection commissioned Leningrad State Institute of Urban Planning (LENGIPROGOR), one of the largest planning organizations in the U.S.S.R. at that time, to develop a technical and economic feasibility study for the Russian portion of the international protected area. The Russian and American counterparts discussed this feasibility study at the August 1991 seminar in Provideniya, Chukotka.

Work toward the establishment of the park on the Russian side was interrupted when President Gorbachev was forced to step down from power in the wake of the failed August 1991 coup. The coup destabilized the Soviet Union, causing its collapse. Boris Yeltsin seized power in the aftermath of the failed coup.

In 1991, Congress funded the National Park Service (Alaska Region) proposal to conduct a long-term research program, known as the Shared Beringian Heritage Program, to foster international connections and research in the Bering Strait area and to explore the possibilities of a joint U.S.–U.S.S.R. protected area. Central to the program was its interdisciplinary nature, integrating research in archaeology, anthropology, historic architecture, geology, paleoecology, botany and wildlife biology on the dynamic landscape stage. While many scientists and local residents participated in this program, two people were central to its success: Gideon Kahlook Barr Sr. and David M. Hopkins. Mr. Barr was well trained in traditional Native science and Dr. Hopkins, traditionally trained in Western science. Cultural resource and paleoecological research projects were managed by Jeanne Schaaf, and natural resource research projects were managed by Dale Taylor, both at the Alaska Regional Office.

In an effort to create an international park, S. 2088, "A bill to authorize the establishment of a Beringian Heritage International Park" was introduced in the U.S. Senate in November 1991. The bill was intended to authorize the President of the United States to designate, by proclamation, the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and the Cape Krusenstern National Monument as the U.S. portion of the international park. This designation was contingent upon the enactment of a similar provision by the Russian Republic. Congress never acted on Bill S. 2088.

However, the process for establishing the park continued. In June 1992 Presidents Bush and Yeltsin issued a joint statement reaffirming their support of the Beringia International Park as formal recognition of the shared natural and cultural heritage of the Beringian region.

In 1992 the proposed Beringia Heritage International Park was discussed at the Four Regions Conference, organized by the NANA Regional Corporation and Bering Straits Regional Corporation in Alaska and Chukotskiy and Providenskiy Regions of Chukotka. Native leaders on both sides of the Bering Strait spoke in support of Russian and American legislation for the international park. In 1992 the National Park Service also produces Bridge of Friendship, a progress report on the establishment of Beringia International Park.

Cover image for the Bridge of Friendship progress report A cover of A Progress Report on the Establishment of Beringia International Park.

Subsequent attempts to redraft the legislation with the cooperation of Native groups in Northwest Alaska and conservation organizations were not successful. Stakeholder concerns with the proposed legislation included: inadequate protection of subsistence activities and access; limitations on economic opportunities; lack of direct benefit to local communities; insufficient local and Native involvement (in Russia and in the United States); undue international influence and loss of sovereignty; and change in management and expansion of NPS units.

The National Park Service and other interested parties recognized the need to encourage more local support and involvement in the activities that an international park designation would promote. Efforts to introduce legislation that would be supported by a wide range of interests would follow.

Expanding the program's scope

Since the mid-1990s consistent efforts have been made to seek greater local and regional participation in the program's research, cultural, and educational activities. The program put special emphasis on staying in contact with the Native constituents through village meetings, the Beringian Notes newsletter, and the program's Internet website that was launched in 1999.

In 1996, a five-member Beringia Panel was established to make recommendations to NPS on priorities for funding of projects sponsored through the Shared Beringian Heritage Program. Two members of the panel represent the National Park Service, and the other three members are representatives of the three Alaska Native regional corporations, Bering Straits, Northwest Alaska Native Association (NANA), and Arctic Slope, which had been set up by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). This cooperation has proven to be beneficial in building a productive working relationship between NPS and local interests.

The Shared Beringian Heritage Program began issuing a call for proposals, seeking scientific research projects or local, community-based educational, cultural, or conservation projects that fulfill some or all of the goals of the program. The call for the proposals emphasized the importance of meaningful Native and Russian components in a project, and the significance of interest and relevancy to the inhabitants of the Beringia region both in the United States and in the Russian Republic.

To ensure that the results of the new approach would be visible and would be reported to the public, and to generate more community interest in Beringia research and issues, NPS instituted the Beringia Days International Conference. The conference opened its doors for the first time in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in the fall of 1997. The Beringia Days became a true bridge-building forum, free and open to the public. The results of the projects funded by the Shared Beringian Heritage Program were presented during two days of lectures, and Native cultures were celebrated during various events and exhibits. Individuals with Beringia-related projects funded by other organizations were welcome to present at the conference.

The development of closer relations between the Alaska Region of the National Park Service and Chukotka Autonomous Region Administration resulted in the 2002 agreement with the Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich to hold the Beringia Days Conference in Anadyr' on an every-other-year basis. In 2003, the Chukotka Administration hosted the Beringia Days for the first time in Anadyr'. The conference was held in conjunction with the Native Folk Festival Ergav. Since then the location of the conference has been alternating between Alaska and Chukotka.

In the early 2000s the Shared Beringian Heritage Program also got actively involved in the development of closer relations with the research organizations in the Russian Far East and Chukotka and assisted with the establishment of sister park relations and scientists' exchanges between Alaska and several Far Eastern parks.

In spring 2004 Chukotka's Nature Ethnic Park Beringia in cooperation with the Shared Beringian Heritage Program organized a five-day-long training seminar for their park rangers in Provideniya. The members of the general public were welcome to attend as well.

During the last decade the Shared Beringian Heritage Program had a lot of success in reaching and working with local populations and partnering with numerous Alaska Native, research, and government organizations.

Last Updated: October 24, 2013