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Harriman Expedition Retraced


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A Panel Discussion on Conservation of the Alaskan Marine Ecosystem

Summary by Brad Barr

Beyond the observations on the depletion of fur seals in the Pribilofs, the subject of conservation was little discussed on the original Harriman Expedition. This was Alaska at the turn of the century, when it was nearly unfathomable to think that resources of this State of superlatives were anything but inexhaustible. However, the end of the gold rush and the depletion of that mineral resource should have been seen as a metaphor for the declines of natural resources. The issues of conservation and preservation of the Alaska marine ecosystem are now front and center for both Alaskans and many in the "lower 48." Panel Participants: Brad Barr (moderator), Vera Alexander, Kathy Frost, Vivian Mendenhall, David Policansky

The panel assembled on August 14, 2001 to discuss this topic and included those who had offered talks previously in the Harriman Expedition Retraced about conservation of marine mammals, seabirds, fish, and those providing background descriptive information on the Bering Sea Ecosystem. The panel focused on the definition of conservation and how to apply that definition to the Bering Sea ecosystem and the larger ecosystem of coastal Alaska. The thesis was that conservation as applied here should encompass more than the traditional scope of simply conservation of natural resources. While conservation of natural resources is the primary concern, what seemed appropriate was to look more broadly at conservation of cultural heritage as well, resulting in a definition that might be best described as conserving of a way of life. There was a lively conversation involving both panelists and the audience, who most definitely had and have an important role in this debate as an integral part of the process that leads to establishing public policy guiding future decisionmaking,

Like many policy discussions, if there was consensus, it wasn't clear what it was. Many points of view were tabled. The idea of integrating conservation, or perhaps better, the preservation of cultural heritage seemed to be on the right track. This seemed to be important not simply for its own sake, but as a possible mechanism to help non-native Alaskans and others relearn how to be a part of the ecosystem. Perhaps part of the problem we have seen over the last century may be linked to thinking of ecosystems as somehow being something apart from humans. By working closely with Native cultures, we may discover a new perspective and new insight into some of the difficult problems we face now and will face in the future.

The panel closed with a description of the "talking circle" of the First Nations of Atlantic Canada. When councils were held to consider an issue, a talking circle was formed, and a "talking stick" was passed from one to another around the circle until all who had something to say had their opportunity. Some of those with the talking stick spoke in parables and stories, and the others in the Council listened carefully and respectfully. Only after the talking circle was over would decisions be made. Like the talking circle, policy decisions are best made with the knowledge of how others in the community feel about that issue. It seemed obvious, from the discussion, that effective communication was both the most challenging problem and the likely best solution to many of the problems and concerns observed and expressed in our discussions during the cruise. Perhaps the talking circle of the First Nations might provide one valuable lesson.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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