Dune Lankard is turning conservation into an economic and political opportunity for the indigenous people of Alaska.
The New Idea
Dune is conserving precious ecosystems by restoring Native control over land and developing new economic incentives for conservation. These tools include: payments which offset the economic “benefits” of clear cutting and strip mining, local philanthropic models, and coalitions that bring together local and national support for a new look at conservation. Among the organizations under the umbrella of his Cultural Conservation Initiative (CCI) are the Native Conservancy Land Trust (NCLT), the Eyak Preservation Council (EPC), and the Fund for Indigenous Rights and the Environment (FIRE Fund). Initially focused on his own Eyak tribe, Dune is now working to educate and engage younger generations and indigenous people outside Alaska, so that their problems are collectively shared and their solutions sustainable. For the native corporations which own the land, Dune’s solutions are more powerful than any act of civil disobedience. They are implemented through an integrated web of organizations and coalitions that address the legal, political, environmental, and most importantly, the financial angles of the problem. For thousands of years Native Alaskans have relied on their traditional knowledge of the sea, ice, land, and animals to thrive in a harsh environment. The plentiful natural resources of Alaska provide a basis for the survival of these communities. By convincing Native communities and policymakers that it is in their long-term economic interest to preserve renewable sources of food, energy and water, Dune is helping indigenous peoples protect some of the world’s last wild places with strategies that are environmentally, culturally and economically sound.
In March 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling over 30 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, oiling 3,200 miles of shoreline. Eighteen years later Prince William Sound is still not clean and has not fully recovered. Exposure to toxic chemicals caused chronic, even fatal, health problems for thousands of people. The herring fishery closed in 1999, creating a loss of $75 million per year to the town of Cordova alone. Exxon has not paid any of the $5 billion punitive damages owed to Native villagers and commercial fishermen (the funds are tied up in legal appeals). Meanwhile, livelihoods have been destroyed, fishing boats idled, and the 18 year legal battle has exhausted the spirit of the residents. This disaster highlighted and exacerbated a flawed system for environmental preservation for the communities living from the land and sea. Ninety percent of residents in the Copper River area rely on natural resources for survival. Subsistence activities provide 50 percent of the food for 75 percent of the Native families in rural Alaska. In most cases, no practical alternative exists to replace food and supplies gathered from fish and wildlife. Environmental organizations often protect endangered plants and animals in wilderness areas but have failed to take into account or consult the people who live from the land. There is no accepted method to determine the fair value of these lands to Native people in order to quantify their economic and cultural significance. The natural resources upon which Alaska’s indigenous people depend face constant threats. The Copper River Delta, at 17 million acres, is one of the world’s largest intact ecosystems and home to world-famous salmon. Salmon is the cornerstone of the Eyak Nation’s economy, generating $20 million per year. Currently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is vying to build a deepwater port in Cordova for cruise ships, the military, and the export of timber, coal, oil and gas. The port would open up road building, resource extraction and commercial tourism, thereby destroying the salmon habitat in the Delta. Another major threat is development of the Bering River coal field, which would open up industrial expansion along the Gulf of Alaska. Unfortunately, the structure of governance and land management within Native communities is not equipped to defend their rights or better manage preservation. The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) created a system whereby tribal members had to form a corporation in order to file for a land claim. This transformed Natives from ancestral stewards to corporate shareholders. In the end, Natives retained only 11 percent of Alaska’s 380 million acres. Native corporations must be profitable to survive: if they file for bankruptcy, the federal government can take their land. To remain solvent, they sell their natural resources for clear cutting, mining, drilling and development, which bring the shareholders short-term gain but devastate their ancestral lands and consequently their traditional way of life. Native corporations expend 99 percent of revenue on salaries and administration; the remaining one percent is divided among their shareholders. Most shareholders are unaware of alternatives that would yield greater economic benefit and allow them to keep their land. Traditional loans are difficult to obtain as most Natives lack adequate collateral. Philanthropic funding for Native organizations is scarce; despite rampant threats to Native communities and their lands, indigenous organizations receive less than 1/20th of one percent of foundation funding in the U.S.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, Dune worked with the Coastal Coalition to create a statewide public groundswell that resulted in a precedent-setting $1 billion out of court settlement from Exxon for restoration in the spill zone. Already a veteran of grassroots activism, over the last 15 years Dune has formulated a strategy to truly change the way native communities controlled their land and are perceived by government and industry. Each program in his network of organizations is pioneering a new tool for conservation and economic development. The most groundbreaking is the use of settlement trusts, which falls under his Native Conservancy Land Trust (NCLT). The NCLT encourages Native people to enter into conservation easements and invest the proceeds in a settlement trust at an established brokerage firm or bank. This way, they can use their dividends and interest as collateral for loans. Rather than destroy their ancestral lands for the cash they need, the settlement trusts would protect and preserve Native resources and culture for future generations. To ensure transparency, each Trust would be governed by a rotating board of shareholder trustees. NCLT serves to preserve and restore ancestral lands, waters and ecological resources by acquiring titles to land and managing these conservation easements. NCLT was the first land trust in Alaska to include Native culture in its charter, prompting all Alaskan land trusts to change their charters accordingly. In the future, NCLT will function as a clearinghouse of indigenous people with expertise in conservation to assist Native people in negotiating with public and private stakeholders. NCLT also is advancing a process that includes cultural and spiritual elements in determining the value of Native land. Dune hopes that other indigenous peoples outside Alaska can adapt these approaches.NCLT is working in concordance with Dune’s Eyak Preservation Council (EPC) on a specific project to stop the development of the Bering River coal field through a comprehensive conservation easement. The “brain trust” helping this effort includes Theodore Roosevelt IV, Denis Hayes, Dr. Jane Goodall, Gifford Pinchot III, and Susanna Colloredo. The EPC is the first and only Native-led non-profit environmental organization in the region. EPC educates a diverse audience about alternatives to resource extraction and uses community and legal action to stop unsustainable development. Partnerships with non-Native environmental organizations allow EPC to better integrate both perspectives. For 18 years, this small organization and its allies have held off intrusive development projects. When choosing projects, Dune prioritizes lands where cultural significance, renewable economies and conservation potential overlap. EPC is working with the Moore Foundation to buy the rights to the Bering River coal field from the Korean Alaska Development Corporation. They will continue until the coal field is under Native control and the development rights are retired. EPC retained a leading law firm, Perkins Coie, to help retire the coal patent. To deter threats to other coal-rich areas, Dune wants to develop a new “green credit” tax incentive to reward companies for reducing emissions by leaving coal in the ground. EPC’s goal is the permanent protection of the ecosystem in the Copper River region and the lifestyle and subsistence traditions of the Native peoples there. Dune realized that all of these efforts for autonomy lose meaning when they remain dependent on outside funding sources. To respond, Dune co-founded the Fund for Indigenous Rights and the Environment (FIRE Fund) in 2005. Guided by Native leaders and noted environmentalists, this community-led philanthropic model helps indigenous grantees achieve environmental and social change. The FIRE Fund invests in citizen-driven solutions grounded in the local community. As it grows, the FIRE Fund will add grantees outside of the Alaska Native community. Dune seeks sustainability for his efforts through public education, partnerships with other indigenous groups, and investment in young leadership. He helped found Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), a fiscal project of the Indigenous Environmental Network. A network of indigenous groups from each region of Alaska, with chapters in Canada and Oklahoma, REDOIL brings Native communities together to replicate successes. With two U.S. partners, EPC offers an annual program to young Native leaders from Alaska and across the USA. During a week of rafting the Copper River, these rising leaders learn conservation economics, and develop valuable leadership and personal skills. Some experience the natural world of their ancestors for the first time. After the trip, the community stays in touch through conference calls to provide regular support. EPC also offers internships to college and law school students in the U.S., Canada, the Bering Straits, and the Chilean rainforest. EPC wilderness rafting trips help the public and policymakers understand the region’s issues and how they relate to the global community. For those who can pay, these trips also provide valuable income to the organization. Finally, Dune acquired a site on Knight Island in Prince William Sound for an applied research institute to focus on fishery management, oil spill science and restoration, environmental law and renewable energy systems. This center will attract and train the next generation of talent for the environmental and Native communities.
Dune was born into the Eyak Tribe in Cordova. During the ANSCA land claims process, his home was a center of political debate about the future of Indigenous people in Alaska; his grandmother Lena “Ahtahkee” Saska warned him “they’re here to take our Eyak land—don’t let them have it!” Dune’s mother went to court to prove that the Eyak tribe had a rightful ANSCA land claim; lawyers and Natives came to the house almost daily, and the conversations he heard left a profound mark on Dune. His mother and grandmother told him that he would emerge as a leader of his people. At age seven, when Dune started fishing with his dad, he questioned why the fishermen threw trash in the water and persuaded some to burn their trash instead. After high school, when his dad used Dune’s college fund to buy him a fishing permit and boat, Dune took up commercial fishing. When Dune was 30, the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in his backyard. This was the spark that Dune needed. After the spill, Dune sued his own Eyak Corporation to force a vote on conservation over development. Eighty-seven percent of the shareholders voted for conservation in this precedent-setting vote that saved 75,000 acres of Alaska rainforest. Soon afterwards, Time magazine named Dune one of the “Top 50 Heroes for the Planet.” The legal action Dune initiated opened the way to conservation agreements approved by shareholders in 13 other Native corporations.Dune organized the Eyak Tribal Elders Council and went to the Alaska Supreme Court on their behalf. With pro bono help from law schools and Trustees for Alaska, he won his case. The decision paved the way for “public interest litigant status” which allowed Native people to bring legal challenges without having to post bonds or pay attorney’s fees to have their case heard. It meant Native citizens could sue their ANCSA corporations without incurring massive debt to do so—an unprecedented opening for natives in the legal system. When Dune perceives threats to his beloved Native heritage, he lives up to his Eyak name, Jamachakih: Little Bird Who Screams Really Loud and Won’t Shut Up. After great success as a community activist, Dune saw that he needed to change the ground rules to favor indigenous peoples in their struggles. The institutions he has created work in concert to protect pristine wilderness and secure the rights of Native people to their way of life. Dune is once again a commercial fisherman in Cordova. Given Dune’s unique work, wild salmon continue to be a source of cultural inspiration and valuable revenue. His fishing profits help support the Cultural Conservation Initiative, and he is working with other fishing captains who have pledged a portion of their profits as well. He is now developing several for-profit entities: a value-added seafood cooperative plant, a fish-waste biodiesel plant, and a seafood marketing company to further his conservation and preservation efforts in Alaska and around the world.