National Park Service Participation in the Arctic Council

By Leigh Welling, Jason Taylor, David Payer, Laura Phillips, and Tahzay Jones, National Park Service
caribou skull in the Arctic tundra
The Arctic Council engages member nations in resource management issues that emphasize the interconnectedness between people and the Arctic environment.

Photo courtesy of Jared Hughey

The Obama White House established strategic priorities for the Arctic Region, including the need for responsible stewardship to support healthy, sustainable, and resilient ecosystems over the long term. The National Strategy for the Arctic Region (2013) and subsequent Implementation Plan (2014) focus on establishing and institutionalizing an integrated Arctic management framework to sustain nature and the communities that depend on the region’s ecosystems and resources. In 2015, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit the Arctic, including the coastal community of Kotzebue and an excursion to Kenai Fjords National Park. With the release of Executive Order 13689 Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic (2015), environmental stewardship of the Arctic became recognized as vital to the national interest.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic” has become the tagline for expressing how widespread and far-reaching changes, such as melting sea ice, species range shifts, and increased development, transportation, and tourism, shape not only the Arctic’s lands, seas, and peoples, but reverberate across the entire planet. Effective conservation in the face of these changes will require a high level of collaboration and implementation of ecosystem-based management approaches from local to panarctic scales.

Ecosystem-based management recognizes that natural and human systems are interconnected and that functioning ecosystems underpin all life. This approach to management focuses on maintaining the integrity of ecological systems, including all component parts, so that natural systems may continue to provide benefits and services such as biodiversity, reduced risks from extreme events, clean air and water, and food security. Ecosystem-based management approaches are essential to promote resilience in the face of broad-scale stressors, including climate change.

National Parks’ Role in a Changing Arctic

When making local resource management decisions, park and other protected-area managers benefit from taking an ecosystem-based management approach and extending their geographic scale of consideration beyond the local unit to include broad-scale resource patterns and trends. By framing park decisions in a large-landscape context, managers are often better able to understand and interpret changing local conditions. Many management initiatives and programs already incorporate this broad-scale perspective, including NPS Inventory and Monitoring Networks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Rapid Ecoregional Assessments, Department of the Interior Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, and the North Slope Science Initiative, to name a few.

In Alaska, natural resource managers face unique challenges and opportunities related to the vastness and remoteness of protected areas. The large size and inaccessibility of most Alaskan parks makes it difficult to inventory and monitor natural resource status and trend. Providing a large-landscape context for interpreting data that do exist is another challenge. Ecosystems in the Arctic are generally quite different from those outside the Arctic (meaning there are few, if any, parallel ecosystems in other regions of the United States). We share many commonalities with other Arctic Nations. Therefore, international collaboration, and access to data and information about resource trends from other Arctic nations, is essential for interpreting the status and trend of resources within Alaska’s national parks, and for anticipating, adapting to, and managing for change into the future.

Strengthening the capacity to anticipate, understand, and manage for change are primary reasons for NPS involvement with the Arctic Council and its working groups. The following paragraphs introduce several of the Arctic Council initiatives to which the NPS contributes.

The Arctic Council and its Working Groups

An important mechanism for supporting broad-scale conservation in the Arctic region is engagement with the Arctic Council and its working groups. The Council is an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation, coordination, and interaction among Arctic nations, Arctic indigenous peoples, and other interested parties. NPS Alaska has engaged in several Arctic Council activities with the goal of furthering the mission of the NPS by protecting natural resources, serving the public, and engaging internationally.

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 to address issues critical to the Arctic Region and its peoples. Membership includes all eight Arctic nations: the United States, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Kingdom of Denmark (on behalf of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which are territories of Denmark), Finland, and the Russian Federation. In addition, six organizations representing Arctic indigenous peoples have Permanent Participant status, including the Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Saami Council. Lastly, Observer status is open to non-Arctic nations and non-governmental organizations to engage in the various Arctic Council working groups. Importantly, the function of the Arctic Council is primarily advisory; the Council does not enforce its guidelines, assessments, or recommendations.

The work of the Council is primarily carried out in six working groups: Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP); Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP); Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF); Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR); Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME); and Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG).

The chairmanship of the Arctic Council rotates every two years among Arctic nations. The first country to chair the Arctic Council was Canada (1996-1998). In April 2015, the United States assumed chairmanship for the second time led by the Secretary of State, John Kerry. Priorities for this U.S. chairmanship include: improving economic and living conditions for Arctic communities; Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship; and addressing the impacts of climate change. In 2017, the chair will rotate to Finland.

The Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program

The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group focuses on the conservation of Arctic biodiversity and promotes sustainability of the Arctic’s living resources. The United States will assume chairmanship of the CAFF working group in May 2017; priorities for this chairmanship are being developed now and NPS Alaska is contributing to their development.

The CAFF working group established the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program (CBMP) in 2004 to address the need for broad-scale biodiversity and ecosystem information in a timely manner for policy-makers, managers, scientists, and communities within the Arctic and globally. The CBMP is an international network of scientists, managers, conservation organizations, government agencies, and Arctic community experts and leaders that collaborate to develop and implement comprehensive plans for monitoring status and trend in four Arctic systems, which serve as subgroups for the CBMP: (1) marine, (2) coastal, (3) terrestrial, and (4) freshwater ecosystems and species. The CBMP works as a “network of networks,” attempting to harmonize monitoring efforts and data from many sources and across scales, disciplines, and jurisdictional boundaries.

The United States has been involved with the CBMP since 2010 and currently plays a number of key leadership roles. Scientists and resource specialists from NPS, BLM, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) participate in various efforts.

NPS Alaska Regional Office and BLM Alaska, in cooperation with the North Slope Science Initiative, co-lead the overall CBMP for the U.S. with the Kingdom of Demark. In addition, the NPS and USGS co-lead development of the CBMP coastal monitoring plan with Canada. Importantly, the coastal plan will include perspectives and approaches based in multiple knowledge systems, including western science and traditional knowledge. Lessons learned from this process will advance our understanding of how to integrate different knowledge systems to support resource management needs.

In addition, staff from the NPS Arctic Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) Network are providing metadata records relevant to implementation of the terrestrial monitoring plan. These data records will be integrated with similar records from across the circumpolar Arctic to report on global status and trend of key Arctic resources. The conceptual process upon which I&M vital sign monitoring targets were selected (i.e., an ecosystem-based approach that is management relevant, model driven, and multidisciplinary in nature) has contributed to the framework used in CBMP terrestrial and coastal plans. Further, protocols developed to collect I&M data in the Arctic (e.g., remote sensing, permafrost, and coastal erosion), have been made available to the panarctic monitoring program.

Overall, the active engagement by multiple Department of the Interior bureaus in the CBMP helps ensure that Alaska’s resource managers can leverage panarctic efforts to better understand changes to inform their decisions.

The Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative

Over 75% of bird species that breed in Alaska leave the state in the fall (Kessel and Gibson 1978). Migration to and from the Arctic requires many species to perform impressive flights that take them across the globe connecting Alaska to the rest of the planet. Alaska’s national parks provide migratory birds with tens of millions of acres of protected breeding habitat. The breadth and diversity of movements exhibited by migratory birds pose one of the most complex conservation challenges facing NPS resource managers—conserving breeding, migratory stop-over, and wintering habitats for birds that nest in the parks. This is an important example of the need for ecosystem-based management approaches that go beyond the boundaries of any individual protected area.

shorebird, Red Knot
The Red Knot is an imperiled Arctic migratory bird.

Photo courtesy of Lucas DeCicco, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The CAFF working group created the Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative (AMBI) to improve the conservation status and secure the long-term sustainability of declining Arctic-breeding migratory bird populations (Johnston et al. 2015). The NPS participates in AMBI to further conservation of migratory birds, especially those that rely on habitats within Alaska’s parks for breeding or refueling during migration.

AMBI has outlined priority conservation actions for several species of imperiled Arctic birds, including Yellow-billed Loons (Gavia adamsii) and Red Knots (Calidris canutus). AMBI’s focus includes the four main flyways of the world: East Asian-Australasian, African-Eurasian, Americas, and Circumpolar. Alaska’s unique geographic position in the far north as the northwestern extremity of the North American continent, the northern boundary of the Pacific Ocean, and the fact that it encompasses much of Beringia, makes it an important land area for all of the main flyways except the African-Eurasian (Kessel and Gibson 1978).

To showcase the importance of the Arctic conservation to other parts of the planet, two Arctic Council working groups held a joint session at the World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii in September 2016. AMBI was one of two case studies used to demonstrate how the Arctic affects the rest of the world. The Congress, held every four years, is the flagship event of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and attracts conservation professionals and leaders from all continents and regions. The session, From Policy to Implementation in the Arctic: Protected Area Networks as Tools for Conservation and Adaptation to Transformational Change, focused attention on enhancing stewardship and well-being for the region, its residents, and the globe. The session was co-chaired by NPS and NOAA, representing the CAFF and PAME working groups of the Arctic Council. Outcomes focused on actions and recommendations to strengthen partnerships and coalitions and will inform the work plans for the two working groups.

Participation in AMBI provides the broader context necessary for park resource managers and scientists to understand how their efforts are important to conservation on a larger scale and enables professionals to communicate and share strategies and approaches. This is ecosystem-based management in practice! This panarctic-scale engagement yields critical information to NPS managers and others seeking to protect resources within the national parks of Alaska by enhancing understanding of how local- to regional-scale decisions affect lands, waters, and resources in other parts of the planet.

Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment

Marine resources in the Arctic provide a critical foundation for both natural and cultural heritage in the region, serving as key ecosystem components and significant subsistence resources. Both ecosystem integrity and subsistence are specified within the enabling legislation of parks in the Arctic region, including Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and Cape Krusenstern National Monument. These parks include 946 miles of shoreline and 115,157 acres of marine ecosystems, and they protect fishes, migratory birds, marine mammals, and other wildlife and provide for subsistence opportunities. Managing these parks for the conservation of cultural and ecological integrity also makes them important marine protected areas (MPAs)—areas designated in the marine environment where special natural and cultural resources are recognized, studied, and protected.
people in a boat fishing off the coast
Marine ecosystems are ecologically and culturally important resources. Arctic people depend on marine resources for subsistence.

NPS/Ken Hill

A U.S. chairmanship priority for the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group is to facilitate a panarctic network of MPAs. The network proposes a common vision for international cooperation in establishment and management of MPAs by the Arctic nations, promotes best practices, and is consistent with other Arctic Council initiatives, such as an ecosystem-based approach to management.

The NPS is also providing recommendations to the MPA Federal Advisory Committee to strengthen and connect MPAs and MPA programs in U.S. waters in support of a framework for panarctic MPAs. Further, the NPS supports a PAME and CAFF joint project on Arctic Marine Protected and Important Areas that consists of three phases, each building upon the other, over a three-year period (2015-2017). The goal is to integrate and harmonize existing data on the Arctic’s marine protected areas and other important conservation areas; identify gaps and priorities in the Arctic’s network of protected areas; present science-based suggestions for next steps; and inform and guide policy and decision making.


The pace of change in the Arctic is rapid and the challenges associated with managing the land, water, and other resources are many. Parks and other protected areas in this region play a critical role. The parks’ relatively intact ecosystems are not only valuable within their own right, they contribute many societal benefits, including subsistence use for Alaska Natives, unsurpassed opportunities for recreation and solitude, conservation of biodiversity, resilience to natural hazards, carbon storage, clean water, and a host of other ecosystem services. Further, large, intact protected areas such as Alaska’s parks, provide vital habitat for migratory species experiencing stressors in other parts of their ranges. These areas also allow species to respond to a rapidly changing climate by shifting their ranges, leading to development of new biotic communities.

The Arctic Council and its working groups provide a forum through which NPS scientists and managers can share information and learn from a wide array of colleagues and Arctic residents that are coping with similar challenges. The NPS and other U.S. participants in Arctic Council activities have much to offer and much to gain from engagement with this international community. Ultimately, involvement with the Arctic Council and its working groups will support informed, defensible decision making at multiple scales through enhanced integration of global science with local management needs. Such an approach is essential for meeting emerging management challenges in the Arctic and beyond.


Johnston, V., E. Syroechkovskiy, N. Crockford, R. B. Lanctot, S. Millington, R. Clay, G. Donaldson, M. Ekker, G. Gilchrist, A. Black and R. Crawford. 2015.
Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative (AMBI): Workplan 2015-2019. CAFF Strategies Series No. 6. Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, Akureyri, Iceland. ISBN: 978-9935 431-40-0.

Kessel, B. and D. D. Gibson. 1978.
Status and distribution of Alaska birds. Studies in Avian Biology, No. 1. Cooper Ornithological Society (Allen Press), Lawrence, Kansas.

The United States, Office of the President. January 21, 2015.
Executive Order 13689 Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic. Available at: (accessed September 15, 2016)

The United States, Office of the President. 2014.
Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. Available at: (accessed September 15, 2016)

The United States, Office of the President. 2013.
National Strategy for the Arctic Region. Available at: (accessed September 15, 2016)

Part of a series of articles titled Alaska Park Science - Volume 16 Issue: Science in Alaska's Arctic Parks.

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument

Last updated: April 6, 2017