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common ground

Stewards of the Human Landscape
Spring 2001

Online Archive

*  Striking Balance: Preserving Nature, Conserving Culture in the Alaska Ecosystem

(image) Illustration of park constituants.

"Environmental problems create winners and losers . . . Losers suffer from lost resources, health, and livelihood. Their powerlessness is often tied to poverty, ethnicity, or religion. "

Barbara Johnston

by Don Callaway

Although Alaska is blessed with parks and preserves of considerable scope, migratory animals like caribou and waterfowl ignore the artificial political and management boundaries humans impose upon the landscape. A caribou herd may cross over from Canada, traverse native territory, pass through several federal refuges, and ultimately calve in a state park. Conserving these species is a complex effort that involves coordination among many constituents.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act placed special pressures on park managers to deal with consumptive practices on park lands. The act, a compromise among a range of interests, opened preserves to sports hunters and allowed the continuation of native hunting and fishing practices in newly formed parks.

The National Park Service is in the difficult position of mediating between traditional harvest practices, which may view resources as being sentient and in infinite supply, with western concepts of restricted harvest seasons and bag limits. Determining the nature of traditional use often demands ethnographic inquiry.

Five years ago, the draft report Ecosystem Management and the National Park Service called on the agency to collect a broader array of ethnographic data than it had in the past because differing social attitudes and cultural practices can affect how natural resources are managed. Today, NPS ethnographers pair quantitative research, which provides data like census figures, income, and range of species, with narrative studies, which communicate a community's character, values, and traditional beliefs.

Natives and other rural Alaskans consume almost 75 percent of the 50 million pounds of wildlife harvested each year. The vast majority of rural communities are accessible only by air or boat, making the purchase of processed foods extremely expensive. The economic numbers are revealing. In Anchorage, the price of food is 25 percent higher than it is in most cities of the western United States. Rural residents, however, pay double the Anchorage cost—and have considerably lower annual incomes. In a recent study, researchers estimated it would take over 75 percent of one community's total cash income to replace the wildlife they harvest in a year.

Other statistics reinforce the realization that wildlife is essential to survival in the Alaskan bush. On average each of the state's rural residents consumes about 375 pounds of meat and fish annually, compared to the U.S. average of 225 pounds. In the Arctic region, villagers may average 650 pounds per capita. Subsistence hunters, unlike sports hunters interested in trophy animals, harvest a wide variety of species–moose, caribou, seal, walrus, salmon, whitefish, and several types of berries. Fish are generally the most important resource, comprising about 60 percent of all the protein in their diet.

However, statistics tell only part of the story. Ethnographic reports, coupled with public testimony solicited by cultural anthropologists, fill in the rest. This considerable body of research shows that, for rural native groups, the social aspects of harvesting, processing, and sharing food are paramount. Whether it is clamming, processing salmon at a fish camp, or seal hunting with a father or brother, subsistence activities provide the most basic memories and values in an individual's life. They teach the person to fish, hunt, and process in a way that is efficient and not wasteful. They promote generosity, respect for the knowledge of elders, and self esteem. The single most respected and reinforced role for young men is that of the successful hunter who distributes the fruits of his harvest widely in the community. In short, these activities provide the moral foundation for continuity between generations.

Even with detailed ethnographic information in hand it is not always easy to find common ground. NPS is tasked with maintaining "natural and healthy populations" of species. Its managers and community members may agree on the health of a particular species, but what do we mean by natural? For example, park managers and research biologists may view a natural brown bear population as the maximum number of bears that can be supported by the existing habitat. Local communities, who compete with bears for berries or have the drying racks at their fish camps raided by juvenile bears, may view much lower numbers as natural.

Understanding the tenets of "traditional ecological knowledge" can help managers negotiate these very different worldviews. For their part, native people believe it is in their best interests if managers consider this knowledge when they make decisions. Traditional ecological knowledge is "built up by a group of people through generations of living in close contact with nature," says Martha Johnson in Lore: Capturing Traditional Environmental Knowledge. "It includes a system of classification, a set of empirical observations about the local environment, and a system of self-management that governs resource use."

However, in the view of some game biologists and land managers, traditional ecological knowledge mixes concepts that they find useful with others that they cannot accept, such as the idea that animals have souls or make sentient choices. Practical outcomes can be accomplished when both sides set aside insistence on one view and share information on the natural history of a species, its relationship to other species in the ecosystem, and the health of the population. Mutual respect, and an understanding of both traditional and western knowledge, holds great promise in achieving NPS objectives in ecosystems management.

Federal and state conservation units in Alaska may constitute sufficient acreage to sustain non-migratory species in a protected contiguous habitat. But, as we have seen, even in Alaska's vast spaces, human influences permeate the landscape. Ethnography provides a critical tool for understanding human influences on the environment and for negotiating conflicting values.

Thus, Alaska presents one of the best test cases for the stewardship of ecosystems. Though the challenge is formidable, few places in the world have comparable personnel and financial resources. If ecosystem management cannot work in Alaska, one would have to be pessimistic about its chances of success anywhere else.

For more information, contact Don Callaway, National Park Service, 2525 Gambell St., Anchorage, AK 99503, (907) 257-2408, e-mail don_callaway@nps.gov.


Dennis, John et al., Draft Report: Ecosystem Management in the National Park Service, Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1994.

Johnson, M., ed., Lore: Capturing Traditional Environmental Knowledge, Hay River, NWT: Dene Cultural Institute and the International Development Research Centre, 1992.

Thorton, Thomas F., ed., "Crisis in the Last Frontier: The Alaskan Subsistence Debate" in Cultural Survival Quarterly, fall 1998.

Wolfe, R.J., and R.G. Bosworth, Subsistence in Alaska: 1994 Update, Juneau: Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 1994.