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Alaskan Sovereignty Issues: Wrangles Over Wrangel

Submitted by on February 25, 2012 – 5:20 pm 3 Comments |  
Sovereignty issues have recently been appearing in Alaskan newspapers. On February 22, the Alaska Dispatch noted that former U.S. senate candidate Joe Miller was lambasting Barak Obama for relinquishing control of several sizable “oil-rich” Alaskan islands, ostensibly because of the Obama administration’s hostility to the petroleum industry. The accusation immediately began to ricochet around the right-wing blogosphere. Gateway Pundit’s headline ran, “Report: Obama Administration Is Giving Away 7 Strategic Islands to Russia.” On many blogs, hyperbole ran wild. One claimed that “the presidents and our elite have given away part of the US,” which it adduced as proof that the United States is “now a dictatorship”; another argued that this maneuver represented nothing less than “the destruction of a nation.”

On some of the larger conservative sites, however, cooler heads urged caution.  Although the comments on Free Republic included such opinion as “TREASON,” and “Is it to appease the Russians or to spite Sarah Palin?,” commentator JSDude 1 provided much needed context, informing readers that the islands in question have never been claimed by the United States and in fact have long been occupied by Russia. Another voice of moderation weighed in with the observation that the islands “don’t exactly look strategic to me unless strategic means cold.”

The lands in question are Wrangel Islands and parts of the DeLong Archipelago, located to the north of Siberia. Every few years someone proclaims that these islands rightfully belong to the United States, but such claims rest on a thin foundation, to say the least. Admittedly, in 1881 an American naval commander planted a U.S. flag, but that is about it. The Russian government officially extended sovereignty over the island in 1911, although it was challenged by a Canadian expedition in 1921. Since 1926, however, Wrangel has been under Soviet and then Russian rule. The United States recognizes Russian control, although a formal treaty specifying as much has never been ratified.  The extreme nationalist group State Department Watch thus claims that the US has a legitimate claim to Wrangel and their other islands, and should thus challenge Russian sovereignty.

Wrangel Island is well known in paleontological circles as the last redoubt of the wooly mammoth. Whereas mammoths went extinct elsewhere at the end of the Pleistocene roughly 10,000 years ago, they survived on Wrangel until about 1,700 BCE. The fact that wooly mammoths held out until the bleak island was first reached by humans is considered by some to be prime evidence that Pleistocene megafauna died out because of human hunting rather than climatic change (more on this when GeoCurrents turns to Siberia next month).

Alaska’s other recent sovereignty issue is domestic, pitting the state against the federal government over the jurisdiction of waterways in Yukon-Charlie National Preserve (a national preserve is administered by the National Park Service, but has a lesser degree protection than an actual national park). The dispute was brought to a head when federal authorities ordered a man to quit hunting moose in the park from the seat of his hovercraft. Although hunting is allowed in the preserve, hovercrafts are not. Alaska has challenged the prohibition, and the case is now going to court.

 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Rosa/1593565364 Peter Rosa

    Wrangel Island’s mammoths were considerably smaller than their extinct-much-earlier counterparts elsewhere in the world.  Still, the idea of a prehistoric animal so closely associated with caveman lore, living into comparatively modern times, is intriguing.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Yes, thanks for adding this point. Mammoths and their relatives often came in “dwarf” forms on islands. 

  • Pingback: Pleistocene Park: The Regeneration of the Mammoth Steppe? « Environmental Geography « GeoCurrents

  • franciseauze

    Please read pages 304-311 of the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1868 (17th Meeting, at Chicago), published in 1869. The entire Proceedings can be found at http://archives.aaas.org/publications.php?pub_id=1037.

    On page 311 it is written that:

    ‘”Wrangell’s Land”, we may here remark, falls about ten degrees westerly of the present boundary of the United States in the latitude of 70˚. The new boundary of the United States passes through the middle of Behring Strait, between the Diomede Islands, one degree south of the Arctic Circle, leaving Ratmanov island on the Russian side and Kreusenstern Island on the American side. From this point it reaches towards the North Pole on the meridian line of 168˚ 50′ west longitude from Greenwich. … Although the newly discovered land does not fall within the enlarged limits of the United States, the honor of the discovery of it belongs to our countrymen.’

    It is therefore clear that no claim was being made that Wrangel Island was or had ever been within the territory of the United States.