US-Soviet Peace Park Invites Cooperation On Array of Interests
Bering Sea unites friendlier neighbors over native cultures and resource management
JOINT US and Soviet efforts to preserve the Bering Sea environment are accelerating.The United States National Park Service and the Soviet State Committee on Environmental Protection are working out details for an international peace park straddling the Bering Strait that could be established as early as next year. The Beringian International Heritage Park would encompass the 1 million-acre Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and possibly parts of Cape Krusenstern National Monument and Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska with part of Siberia's 15 million-acre Chukotka Peninsula. The park was authorized by Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev at their 1990 summit meeting. It would be the third US park to receive international status, after Canada-bordering Glacier National Park in Montana and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. The international plan is more than symbolic. The region where the ancestors of today's Native Americans, Alaska Eskimos, and Aleuts crossed on land from Asia to North America is one of the world's richest and most important ecosystems, environmentalists say. Some 200 kinds of birds from all seven continents migrate through the Beringia region, as do 19 species of marine mammals, including whales, polar bears, walruses, and seals. "Essentially, it's an international crossroads historically for people and for wildlife," said Dave Cline, regional vice president for the Audubon Society's Alaska-Hawaii office.
Preservation of cultures The region is rich with archaelogical artifacts that date back to the periods of human migration more than 12,000 years ago. The park would help preserve both native history and present indigenous cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait as well as the ecological resources, organizers say. Preservation of indigenous cultures is a new goal in the Soviet Union, where officials once cited national security and communist ideology to relocate Far East natives from their traditional coastal villages into inland collective settlements. The Chuktotka region, home to Chukchi natives and Siberian Yup'ik Eskimos, is a key reindeer hunting center. Park organizers say the challenge lies in preserving resources while not interfering with the natives' subsistence lifestyle. "The first [priority for] use of the resource needs to be the traditional use of the natives," said Ludmilla Bogoslovskaya, chief scientist for the Soviet planning committee. The peace park initiative and other new Alaska-Siberia environmental programs come amid escalating development pressures on both sides of the strait. "One could say that we have a common threat ... industrial development," Ms. Bogoslovskaya said.
Oil potential The Arctic and subarctic waters lying between the Alaskan and Siberian mainlands figure prominently into Bush's national energy strategy. The US Interior Department has set a Chukchi Sea oil and gas lease sale in August and a Navarin Basin (in the Bering Sea southwest of St. Lawrence Island) sale for September. In the Soviet Far East, onshore and offshore prospects have piqued interest of US firms. The Soviet region holds potential for rich oil finds and, experts say, economic salvation for the troubled Soviet economy. The Norton Sound, off Nome's coast, is said to hold the potential for a new offshore gold rush. And the Magadan region, northeast of the Anadyr Gulf, long one of the Soviet Union's key mining districts, holds promise for joint mining ventures. Once a feared destination for gulag-bound dissidents, its rivers and streams are already polluted. The booming commercial fishing industry in the Bering Sea, perhaps the world's richest fishery, poses both risks and opportunities to the Alaskans and Siberians. US and Soviet fisheries managers are now pressuring officials from Japan, South Korea, Poland, and China to limit fishing in the 50,000-square-mile Bering Sea "Donut Hole" that lies between the US and Soviet exclusive economic zones. But there are signs of overharvesting - high levels of salmon interception, a dwindling population of Stellar sea lions, and a crash in Bering fishery stocks. More degradation could occur if Soviet economic panic spurs development shortcuts in the Chukotka and Magadan regions. "In a cash-poor economy right now, they're very interested in inviting foreign companies into their waters in the Chukchi," said Dana Seagars, a walrus specialist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "If American companies go and work on their side, the United States really has nothing to say about the effects of oil development there." Mr. Seagars works out of a new US Fish and Wildlife Service international office in Anchorage, set up this month to coordinate an increasing number of joint US-Soviet projects. Scientists working on other studies of birds, fish, sea lions, plants, and other environmental issues are scrambling to catch up on research that was neglected or obstructed during the cold war. "Birds don't know boundaries, and the fact that we were not working together was not a good thing," said Albinas Shalna, a Soviet expert on peregrine falcons who was headed earlier this month to study nesting sites along Alaska's Yukon River.
Developers split Development-boosters themselves are promoting higher levels of environmental protection for the resource-rich area. The Arco Alaska Russia Exploration Company, established in November, has found regional officials keenly interested in importing the sophisticated environmental technologies used on Alaska's North Slope. "I think there is an environmental ethic with the people, but I think it's been repressed," said David Heatwole, an Arco Alaska Inc. vice president who has been coordinating the Siberian oil exploration venture. Past abortive attempts at oil development in the Chukotka and Magadan regions brought ecological disaster, he says. Other development proponents are wary. Steven Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, worries that the new park might pose further restriction on his industry. "There will be no mining activity, there will be no exploration, there will be no potential for a highway or a railroad - all of those things would be history if a park were created, under our definition of a park," he says.