Even if Congress follows President Bush’s lead in opening off-shore oil exploration, there exist over 125,000 square miles of sea bottom that won’t be explored, because the State Department – amid controversy and against the will of Alaskans – has surrendered the land to Russia.
Eight islands and their surrounding sea floors were ceded to the former Soviet Union as part of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Maritime Boundary Treaty in 1991, a treaty signed by the U.S. Senate and President George Bush but never ratified by the Soviets. Nonetheless, an executive agreement enforcing the terms of the treaty until ratification has been in place through three presidencies, meaning the State Department officially recognizes the islands as Russian territory.
Alaskan legislators, who were given no input or authority on the island giveaway, have long protested the treaty, declaring it null and void without Russian ratification.
And since last week’s U.S. Geological Survey estimating that 90 billion barrels of oil lie undiscovered and technically recoverable above the Arctic Circle, those 125,000 square miles of seabed have taken on newly appreciated value. Five of the islands lie north of the Artic Circle, and the other three sit at the western end of Alaska’s Aleutian island chain.
Carl Olson, a retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander and chairman of State Department Watch, a nonpartisan foreign policy watchdog group, explained to WND the significance of the State Department’s stance: “The area off the coast of an island that a nation may use is called the exclusive economic zone. The group in charge of defining that is the State Department. So (the president and Congress) can say the off-shore areas are opened up, but still not recognize these quarter of a million square miles available for American oil exploration.”
Alaska state Rep. John B. Coghill told WND earlier, “The issues involve not only state sovereignty over vital territories but also significant national defense concerns and substantial economic losses over fisheries and petroleum.”
The Alaskan legislature and a sympathetic California legislature have both passed resolutions asking Congress to allow Alaska at the bargaining table with Russia to resolve the islands’ ownership. After almost 20 years of official protests, the U.S. State Department has yet to acknowledge Alaska’s arguments.
“It’s totally anti-public, anti-Congress, anti-state actions – but unfortunately the State Department thinks it has the power to adopt this boundary line with the Russians without anybody’s consent outside themselves, ” Olson told WND. “The State Department is basically chopping off a piece of Alaska and giving it to a foreign government without Alaska having any say in it.”
The lands in dispute include the islands of Herald, Bennett, Henrietta, Jeanette, Copper Island, Sea Lion Rock, Sea Otter Rock, and Wrangel, which is the largest of the eight, roughly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
The U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, including the Aleutian Islands, which presumably would include Copper Island, Sea Otter Rock and Sea Lion Rock. In 1881, U.S. Captain Calvin L. Hooper landed on Wrangel Island and claimed it for the U.S. Also in 1881, the U.S. Navy claimed the islands of Bennett, Jeannette, and Henrietta. The British held Herald Island, but they gave up that claim, permitting the U.S. to take it.
American citizens had occupied Wrangel Island from approximately 1881 to 1924, when Russian soldiers landed and forcibly removed the American occupants from its shores. The Russians then reportedly used the island as a concentration camp.
Many Alaskan legislators believe the islands were part of their state, even after the Wrangel invasion, though the U.S. State Department officially disagrees. Without a ratified treaty designating them as Russian, those same legislators and Carl Olson believe the islands still are American territory and can be reverted to the U.S. easily.
The only thing binding the islands to Russia is “in the form of an executive agreement,” Olson told WND, “which means it can be changed with the stroke of a pen by the president, because it has no force of law.”
“We have been steadily maintaining the pressure,” said Olson. “It’s just a matter of finding sympathetic people in Washington and the other states to go for it. There’s plenty of organizations who have endorsed our efforts, so we keep up the drumbeat.”
Coghill has also sought the support of other states, claiming that the federal State Department has overstepped its authority in giving away a state’s land. “If they can do this to Alaska,” he warns, “they can do this to any state.”
U.S. State Department officials did not return WND telephone calls to discuss the matter, but a State Department webpage devoted to the island controversy denies that islands were ever claimed by the United States and explains that though the treaty between the U.S. and Russian Federation was never fully ratified, “In a separate exchange of diplomatic notes, the two countries agreed to apply the agreement provisionally.”
The webpage concludes, “The U.S. has no intention of reopening discussion of the 1990 Maritime Boundary Treaty.”