The Use of GIS to Enhance Communications of Cultural and Natural Resources and Contamination
Five Pribilof Islands, volcanic in origin and remotely located in the Bering Sea, are home to Aleuts and the breeding grounds to 70% of the world’s northern fur seal population and numerous seabird species. The once uninhabited islands were first occupied by the Russians in 1786 and later became controlled by the U.S. Government. At the time of the Russian incursions into the Aleutian Islands, some have estimated the Aleut population at 15,000-18,000. First Russia and then the U.S. relied on the forced labour of Aleuts relocated to the Pribilof Islands from the Aleutian Islands chain to harvest sea otters, fur seals, and arctic fox. From their first arrival and through much of the 20th century, Unangan (people) or Pribilof Aleut people relied on the islands’ and Bering Sea’s natural resources, including fur seals, sea lions, whales, arctic fox, walrus, sea bird species, and a variety of plants for customary traditional purposes and subsistence. Even today natural resources are vital to the survival interests of Unangan on the Pribilofs. Unangan of St. Paul and St. George Islands are the world’s single largest ethnic Aleut community whose world population approximates 3,200 individuals. Fur seal, endangered Steller sea lion, introduced reindeer, halibut, crab and other marine invertebrate species, and plants, such as crowberry, continue to play a significant role in customary traditional practices, economic development, and the maintenance of cultural and ecological harmony. Settlement terms under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 required the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as the most recent of the former federal land managing agencies for these islands, to transfer more than 95% of the land area to the local Aleuts. A 1976 Memorandum of Understanding and a 1984 Transfer of Property Agreement (TOPA) incorporated the details of the property transfer between NOAA and various local entities. The settlement and subsequent legislations including the Pribilof Islands Environmental Restoration Act of 1995 and the Pribilof Islands Transition Act of 2000 required NOAA to restore the islands’ environmental
integrity compromised by U.S. Government activities supporting its commercial fur sealing enterprise. Environmental concerns included numerous releases of petroleum fuel products associated with the disposal of used oil, overfilling of storage tanks, corrosion of storage tanks, pipelines, and barrels, as well as landfills for household wastes, construction and demolition debris, scrap metal and junked vehicles, boats, barges, and aircraft. In addition, military activities during World War II contributed to soil and groundwater contamination. More than ninety sites on the two inhabited islands, St. George and St. Paul, required evaluation and potential restoration in order to complete the land transfer. The islands’ remoteness, approximately 2,200 statute miles from NOAA’s base of operations in Seattle, Washington requires a minimum of eight hours in travel time. Weather extremes involving fog, snow, and wind frequently cause flight cancellation. Improving communications through such multimedia technologies as Internet, GIS, and video were identified early as absolutely critical to the restoration project’s success.