The Yukon River Watershed Basin, encompassing 330,000 square miles in northwestern Canada and central Alaska—an area twice the size of California—is one of the largest and most diverse ecosystems in North America. Most of the Yukon River's indigenous inhabitants live in extremely remote areas with no road access. Therefore, supplies thus arrive to the Yukon communities via air or water at the costly gasoline price of $9 per gallon. Waste from these imported items often ends up in local landfills, infamous for being poorly managed and known to contribute heavily to water and land contamination.
Responding to the deleterious affects of hazardous waste on their natural environment, sixty-six indigenous governments came together to form the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC), a collaborative body dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Yukon River Watershed. The YRITWC was formalized through the Inter-Tribal Accord. This treaty commits all aboriginal government signatories to consult and cooperate on matters that affect the cultural or ecological integrity of the Watershed, provides technical assistance and training, conducts relevant research, and administers education and awareness programs to promote environmental health.
The Solid Waste and Energy Management program, one initiative of the YRITWC, removes toxic waste through "backhauling"—loading planes and cargo barges, which otherwise would have returned to the mainland empty, with hazardous materials. Once returned to the urban centers, this waste—including obsolete computers, abandoned vehicles, lead-acid batteries, and anti-freeze-is sorted, processed, recycled, and sold, with revenues channeling back to the YRITWC. Through this backhaul process, the indigenous tribes of the Watershed have removed and recycled over 5 million pounds of hazardous and toxic materials in the last three years. Such waste prevention and recycling efforts have doubled the lifetime of Alaska's rural landfills, saving over $100,000, and preserving water quality throughout the region.
The success of initiatives like Solid Waste and Energy Management have prompted other groups of tribes to approach the YRITWC, seeking council on how to form their own inter-Tribal watershed councils. To date, YRITWC has provided training and technical assistance to facilitate environmental protection efforts in other Watersheds, including the Kuskowim, Kobuk, Copper River, and Urgashik in Alaska; and the Mackenzie River First Nations in Canada.