Protecting wild places helps public health in the Arctic

National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska

Credit: Bob Wick (BLM), flickr

Offsetting the negative impacts of oil development in the Arctic not only protects the wilderness, but also the people who live there.

For the first time since the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska was established in 1923, a company is producing oil in the western Arctic. The reserve has long been a focus of our work in Alaska, and The Wilderness Society has helped ensure that roughly half of the reserve is recognized—as Congress intended—for its wilderness values and wildlife habitat.

The Interior’s Bureau of Land Management administers the reserve under its Integrated Activity Plan, which balances conservation with demands for domestic oil production. Nearby communities depend on sound management and healthy ecosystems that support the wildlife that has sustained Alaska Natives for generations.

That’s a major reason The Wilderness Society is working with Native communities, federal land managers and other stakeholders, including the oil industry, to develop a regional mitigation strategy to offset the negative effects of oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Ecosystems are a key influence in determining public health and wellness everywhere, and that’s especially true in America’s Arctic, where Alaska Native villages have depended on wild resources for thousands of years.

“Many Alaska Natives live a subsistence way of life, gathering much of their food from the land and waters near their villages,” said David Krause, Arctic lands specialist for The Wilderness Society. “Protecting landscapes and ecosystems helps to ensure abundant subsistence resources. These wild resources contribute to a traditional diet and customs that have many public health benefits.”

Harvesting, preparing, sharing, and consuming foods such as fish, game and berries also brings people together and helps contribute to important community structures and social networks, researchers have found.

The social networks built around subsistence activities help facilitate regular contact with other people, care for elders, and individual social roles.  All of those factors benefit physical and mental health, research shows.

So when we protect wild places to ensure that fish, game birds, and food sources such as caribou can thrive in healthy ecosystems, we are also protecting public health benefits for remote communities.

As a new development begins with the Greater Mooses Tooth Unit 1 project near the community of Nuiqsut, stakeholders are helping the federal Bureau of Land Management establish ways to offset the negative impacts of oil development to ensure that Arctic communities and ecosystems are protected.

“Conservation work that protects subsistence resources and practices will help ensure health benefits for communities,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society. “That’s why we’re encouraging BLM to consider how their land management decisions will affect residents of Alaska’s North Slope.”