color photography of a bridge over the Tanana River in Nenana, Alaska. yellow grass grows tall in the foreground, with coniferous trees in the background
(via iStock)

Food security is a major point of discussion in Alaska. The state’s population is increasing; it saw an increase of 100,000 residents in the past two decades. The vast majority of food, or about 95%, available in grocery stores is imported, primarily from the lower 48 states. Gas and staple products are expensive. Climate change is increasing temperatures at twice the rate than the rest of the U.S. But there’s another ongoing threat, according to Native land defenders and environmental advocates: a project to raze 140,000 acres of forest and wetlands for a state-sanctioned agricultural undertaking. 

This October, the Alaska state government finalized the sale of 27 parcels of land “for agricultural use” that will threaten hunting and trapping in the area west of the city of Nenana, the land historically stewarded and cared for by the Nenana people. The sale of the land also coincides with the Department of Transportation’s Nenana-Totchaket road development project, which will allow greater access to the land and further threaten native plant and animal species, not to mention Native food security and sovereignty. 

“Generally speaking, I don’t think people support the selling of the land because a lot of people here who live in Nenana subsist off the land and trap and make incomes off of the land,” said Lindsey Maillard, a tribal member of the Nenana Native Association (the formal name of the tribe) and environmental community organizer with Native Movement, a state-wide organization. “It’s really to our benefit to keep it intact.”

Alaska Natives and Nenana peoples feel the loss of foodways brought on by climate change more acutely than non-Native residents of Alaska—salmon aren’t returning in plentiful numbers, mollusks aren’t safe to eat because of pollution, and warming weather means that berries and other plants aren’t getting the snowpack that they need in the winter to grow, among other impacts. 

While climate change underlies the shifting availability of staple foods, the ecological disruptions are a symptom of a greater problem: a continuation of a system in which agriculture is used to colonize land and dispossess Native peoples of their lifeways and traditions, a system that works against the environment rather than in partnership with it. 

“​​The earth is responding to imbalance, but Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, who are living in the ways that we’ve always done and [are] also at the center of these really negatively impactful environmental injustices and projects like the Nenana land sale, we’re experiencing [impacts] disproportionately to our non-Native counterparts in the rest of the world,” said Haliehana Stepetin, a Ph.D. candidate in Native American studies at the University of California, Davis, who is Unangax̂ and is from Unangam Tanangin (or the so-called “Aleutian” Islands).

What the state of Alaska is doing by harming the land integral to healthy and thriving Indigenous food systems is an act of settler colonialism, Stepetin said, “because settler colonialism seeks to erase Indigenous peoples and then replace our societies with this settler society.”

One of the main points of anger, in addition to the ecological consequences of construction and the scapegoating of very real food insecurity,  is that both projects—the land sale and the road extension—have moved forward without substantive and adequate tribal and community consultation. There’s also anger and frustration over the state’s continuing claim it has conducted necessary outreach, opponents to the land sale say. 

“Tribal consultation has not been adequate, and they are making claims that far overstate what they actually have done,” said Margi Dashevsky, who works for Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, an organization that’s advocating for a regenerative economy and against the Nenana land sale. Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition is partially fiscally sponsored by Native Movement. 

“We are working on a more formal consultation agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding, that will help both the department and tribes communicate more effectively as we move forward both for stage-one work and subsequent stages,” Shannon McCarthy, a representative with the state’s Department of Transportation wrote by email. 

McCarthy also said that “[c]onstruction of the planned improvements to the existing road to begin this fall have been communicated in advance with the Nenana Tribe; Toghotthele Corporation; Doyon, Limited; the City of Nenana; Minto Tribe; Seth-De-Ya-Ah Corporation; Minto Development Corporation; and the public.”

“We are continuing to work with the community and listen to feedback about construction. We’re focused on working toward building a team to collectively make a plan on the path forward. These actions are incredibly important to us.”

Industrial agriculture contributes to climate change

The state’s interest in the Nenana land began in the 1970s, around the time when the federal Department of Agriculture was encouraging farmers to “get big or get out” and balloon the yield of cash crops like corn and soybeans they could bring to market. While the intention was to industrialize America’s farms in the lower 48, agriculture in Alaska was marketed as a divergence from the boom-and-bust cycles brought by the oil and gold surveilling that had previously shaped state economies.

But the sought-after Nenana land lay beyond a riverway, and for the next 50 years it would remain out of reach of the government and under the care of Nenana peoples, who to this day rely on forest’s complex ecologies for food and sustenance. 

That changed in 2020, when a $9 million federal grant helped fund the Nenana Native Association’s construction of the 450-foot bridge over the Nenana River. The City of Nenana, which was a part of the planning and approvals process for the road, claims that it, rather than the tribe, owns the bridge. 

The Nenana city government did not respond to Prism’s multiple requests for comment. 

The construction of the bridge created a new opening, literally, for the State of Alaska’s Department of Agriculture to carry out its holdover project from the 1970s: turning the land into arable agricultural space. The state divided 140,000 acres into 27 different parcels and allocated $5 million for the land sale project and as much as $30 million in public funding for 20 miles of road construction, widening, and resurfacing

The land sale started in June 2022 and was completed in October. Private entities were encouraged to submit bids for individual parcels, with the opportunity to bid on multiple sections of the land. In total, the auction raised $1 million for the state. With funding from Native Movement, Nenana food sovereignty project Tlaa Deneldel Community Group purchased 42 acres of the land, said Michaela Stith, the climate justice director at Native Movement. 

The State of Alaska, in both comments to the media and according to official project documentation, is adamant that the unique and changing environment of the region is ripe for food production. “Data supports that the growing season has gradually increased from an average of 90 days to 110 days from 1980 to 2019,” the project’s website said. “Predictions are based on cumulative days above 32 degrees as defining the growing season.” In another report, the state boasts that the extended periods of sunlight in spring and summer allow “crops to grow larger and faster than other regions in the United States.” However, these assertions fail to mention that while the thawing permafrost in Alaska’s interior may make way for industrial agriculture, it also accounts for a significant portion of carbon dioxide emissions. 

Globally, agriculture is one of the main causes of deforestation, and deforestation is a significant cause of carbon emissions. A Stanford University study found that every 1 million acres of eliminated forest contributes an amount of carbon into the atmosphere equivalent to that of 40 million cars annually. In the case of the Nenana land, that’s about 5.6 million cars on the road, or about 7.6 cars per Alaska resident. 

Even without this specific intervention from the state’s agricultural and transportation departments, local food economies and small farms have grown tremendously in the past two decades. From 2002 to 2012, the number of small farms in Alaska increased by 67%, and some research shows that there’s high demand for locally grown produce in the interior parts of Alaska. Many of these produce farms are 1-3 acres. The State of Alaska did not respond to questions regarding when food from these farmlands might be available for commercial purchase. 

True tribal consultation is the answer 

The reason that the state claims the project will be successful—climate change—is the same culprit destroying Native peoples’ access to traditional foods. Without traditional foods, Native peoples also suffer a loss of language, culture, and independence from an extractive food economy. Alaska Native and Indigenous peoples comprise an estimated 20% of the state’s residents, 45% percent of whom are food insecure, according to some studies. 

In fact, as Stepetin said, agriculture in the U.S. originated partly as a justification for colonial expansion, even under the guise of food and resource generation. Prior to colonization, Alaska Native peoples weren’t food insecure—that era began in the 1880s when oil barons first made illegal claims to the land and deepened when the federal government incorporated Alaska as a state in 1959. 

As a child, Stepetin remembers relying on what are known as “title foods” like clams, mussels, kelp, and seaweed. From interviews with other Unangax̂ peoples, Stepetin has documented how changes to the environment brought changes to the food system: marine mammals like sea lions and seals aren’t birthing as many pups or in as predictable locations, which affects hunting. As the ocean warms, more frequent algal blooms poison shellfish. 

“We’ll probably never be able to eat clams ever again,” Stepetin said.

Once staple food and individual species are gone, they can’t come back, which puts added pressure on Native peoples to preserve the ecosystems that remain, like the Nenana land. 

But if the solution to unanswered questions of building and maintaining food security perpetuates food insecurity felt by Alaska Natives, then the Nenana plan isn’t a sound one, advocates for the land and tribal sovereignty say. 

In their lifetime, Maillard, who is 24, said that a number of food, cultural, and spiritual traditions have shifted because of climate change. The tribe hosts Nenana culture camps for children and young people to share traditional knowledge, including how to cut fish. For the past two years the tribe has been forced to buy salmon because of diminished salmon returns due to the warming of the river, Maillard said. Food insecurity is real for Native Alaskans living in the interior, and it’s not the kind of food security that a large-scale farm could—or even should—solve. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” Maillard said. “It’s just hard to imagine a world in the future without salmon; that’s the food that I grew up on … it’s a soul food here.”

But Maillard isn’t convinced of the government’s stated intention that the land is being readied solely for agriculture. They predict that the extension and widening of the road will allow for other kinds of development, potentially for oil and other minerals, which the state retains the rights to below ground even while private developers have rights to everything above the soil. As recently as 2016, the Nenana basin was a central conversation point in the state’s interest in expanding extraction operations by private oil companies.

As far as the Nenana Native Association and many members of the community are concerned, the fight isn’t over. On Oct. 31, a day before construction was slated to begin, about 10 people stood in 15-degree weather to blockade the bridge over the Nenana River and demand that the state commit to a full tribal consultation and halt the process of development. Leaders of the tribe later met with state officials, who agreed that construction crews would not cross the bridge that evening. 

But that was one evening, and it remains to be seen if the state will slow down development and truly work with the tribe and honor its concerns. With the land sale executed and parcels in the hands of private owners, Dashevsky said that when it comes to future land sales, the state would hopefully engage in what she called “true tribal consultation.” What that could actually mean in practice is another question, but Dashevsky said it could start with offering the local community first priority on bidding. 

If state leaders were to listen and understand that climate change is part of what’s causing food insecurity, then they might see this moment for what it is, Dashevsky said: an opportunity to shift away from an extractive economy. 

“This particular land sale is at the heart of [the struggle] between the status quo and the possible future where we can thrive in right relationship with the land stewarded by the same people who have stewarded it for countless generations,” Dashevsky said.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.