Initiative brings new ideas on public lands management

National parks and wildlife refuges are revered as places to find healthy habitat, clean water, and opportunities for recreation and reflection. But the story of our public lands is also marked by mistreatment and displacement of Indigenous people, including here in Alaska. Now, in a project called the Imago Initiative, Indigenous people, federal policy makers, and conservationists are re-thinking how to manage public lands to better align with Indigenous traditions. And they’re starting at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest refuge.

Meda DeWitt of The Wilderness Society explains that the initiative is meant to foster on-the-land dialogue that integrates Indigenous knowledge and perspective into existing public lands management.

Last summer, DeWitt was among a group of Indigenous representatives, conservation group leaders, and agency officials who discussed the initiative while camped in the remote refuge for over a week.

“When you’re out on the land, you think differently,” says DeWitt, explaining that the sights and textures of a place can prompt a deeper dialogue than while looking at a map inside an office, where the vast arctic refuge might appear “the size of a postage stamp.” It also helps develop relationships, she says.

The Imago Initiative does not seek to replace current management but intends to improve it by integrating long-held Indigenous perspectives on the human-land relationship. It advances Indigenous participation in management and ensures continued traditional uses of the refuge such as subsistence and ceremonial activities.

DeWitt says place-based dialogue is important for healing past wrongs and that building relationships among Indigenous communities, agencies, and conservation groups takes time.

The Imago Initiative is named for a stage in the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly and proponents hope to apply it beyond the arctic refuge.


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