The U.S. already has a cross-border park arrangement with Canada (Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park) and proposals for some type of agreement with Mexico across from Big Bend National Park have been floating around for decades. Now there's news of renewed interest in expanded cooperation with another country, but it doesn't involve either Canada or Mexico. Can you locate "Beringia" on a map?
If you gaze across the Bering Strait from the western tip of Alaska toward the Chukchi Peninsula on a clear day, you can not only see Russia, you're also literally looking at "tomorrow." The International Date Line slices through this narrow stretch of icy water that separates the U.S. and Russia.
According to recent reports in the Russian media, the future could also hold some kind of new cross-border nature preserve in the vast area on both sides of the Bering Sea known as Beringia.
Cultural and ecological ties between western Alaska and the far eastern reaches of Russia long predate current political boundaries. About 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, Asia and North America were physically connected at an area known as the Bering Land Bridge, and strong ties still exist between the native people in both nations.
From a scientific and cultural resource standpoint, better cooperation in the area has merit, and you may have seen recent news reports about a possible new international "preserve." What, if anything, is afoot?
The answer goes back at least 20 years, and the website for the Beringia Nature and Ethnic Park provides some background:
The idea of creating an international park in the region of the Bering Strait was first proposed in the 1960s. From the beginning, the Park’s vision acknowledged that spiritual values and ways of life of the indigenous Chukchi and Yupik Eskimo people work hand-in-hand with the goals of biodiversity and ecosystem conservation.
In June 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush signed a joint declaration on the establishment of the Soviet-American Park in the area surrounding the Bering Strait. The declaration states that, in creating this park, both the USA and the USSR recognize the global significance of the Bering Strait region and take on the shared responsibility to preserve it for the common good.
On January 27, 1993, the Nature-Ethnic Park “Beringia” was established on the Soviet/Russian side of the Bering Strait. Since then, parts of the Chukchi Peninsula lying within the Park’s territory have been officially designated as nature preserves. The Park’s mission is to sustain and promote the unique indigenous Yupik and Chukchi economies, such as reindeer herding and sea-mammal hunting, within the wider framework of cultural and biological conservation.
The 1990s concept for some kind of international park fizzled, but according to Russian news sources, the idea has been revived. We thought it was reasonable to inquire about the current U.S. position, and here's what we've learned so far.
Limited international scientific cooperation has been taking place in the area for a number of years, and since nature doesn't respect political boundaries, there's much to be gained through pooling of knowledge about shared resources. The NPS has a tiny staff in Alaska running the Shared Beringia Heritage Program; among other things, that office helps coordinate and fund research in U.S. parks in Beringia.
According to that office, there's no formal NPS proposal currently on the table for any kind of international "park" in the area. According to the Beringia Program website, "Discussions between the NPS and State Department began in 2009 regarding the possible reintroduction of a proposal to establish an international protected area supported by the local population. The NPS is meeting with local constituents and hosting community meetings to ascertain their interests and/or concerns in regards to international recognition in the future."
A staff member emphasized that those meetings are simply trying to determine if there is any interest in some kind of cooperative international conservation effort, and if so, what form any future agreement might take.
Land management issues tend to be a sensitive subject in Alaska—and in adjoining areas in Russia as well—and my contact emphasized there's been no discussion about changes in land ownership, access or subsistence rights on either side of the border. In short, the concept from the U.S. standpoint thus far is tentative at best.
One of the ideas considered in 1990 was to include parts or all of four existing NPS areas in the area in an international "preserve" of some kind, but there would have been no change in ownership or oversight of those areas; each country would continue to manage its own sites. Similar guidelines could be expected to apply in any future proposals, making any "cross-border park" largely symbolic.
The four NPS sites in the area are Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Noatak National Preserve, and Kobuk Valley National Park. One of the reasons the 1990 proposal for increased international cooperation died was the absence of a corresponding protected area in Russia.
The Beringia Nature and Ethnic Park established in 1993 is similar to a regional or state park in the U. S., but the Russians may finally be ready to take action at the national level. News reports cite plans for establishment of a new protected area in Chukotka, and according to Amirkhan Amirkhanov, Deputy Head of Environmental Protection at the Russian Natural Resources Ministry, "all bureaucratic procedures connected with the creation of this park, which will span an area of 1.8 million hectares, should be completed by the end of the year."
Would that action jump-start interest on the U.S. side of the Bering? It's too soon to tell, but if so, what changes might result from a future accord?
Under an new international agreement, existing cooperation between scientists working in protected areas in both countries would likely increase, and it's conceivable there could be some expansion in visitor travel. This is a remote part of the world, and current cross-border connections for tourists are limited indeed. Even so, the Russians sound optimistic. According to a quote from Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov by the Russian news service Kommersant:
"The creation of the Beringia National Park on Russian and U.S. territory is a project that allows us to establish an eco-tourism zone through minimal investment," Ryabkov said. "We plan to establish air links, as well as the necessary transport infrastructure."
Improved infrastructure or not, this will never be an easy part of the world for travel, and some of the biggest payoffs for greater cooperation in the region could be increased awareness of—and therefore stronger protection for—the area's natural and cultural resources. According to Kommersant, "The [proposed] nature reserve would cover millions of hectares and preserve the region's unique flora and fauna, in particular sea mammals, brown bears and numerous bird species."
Another idea cited in Kommersant was a proposal from the Russian Foreign Ministry for visa-free travel in the area for all residents of Chukotka and Alaska. Border security issues have been a sticking point in proposals for an international park in the Big Bend area, on the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. It's not yet clear how big a role those concerns would play in Beringia, although there's no doubt travel across the icy—and often frozen—Bering Sea is vastly different than wading the Rio Grande in Texas.
Will world-class natural resources and centuries-old cultural ties among native people groups pave the way for increased U.S.-Russian cooperation in these distant corners of both nations? It's far too soon to tell, but it will be interesting to see what some distant tomorrow may bring, along and across the International Date Line.
What do you think? Is this an idea whose time has come?