Arctic Summit Tackles A Diverse Spread of Issues

The Institute of the North is bringing together policy makers and local shareholders to discuss short- and long-term goals for America’s presence in the far north during it’s “Week of the Arctic” in Nome, Kotzebue, and Barrow.

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Balancing larger Arctic ambitions with more local, immediate needs—like running water and affordable energy—dominated the discussion Monday. Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Institute of the North, says the conversation was wide-ranging … and admittedly ambitious.

“For as much as the long list of infrastructure and needs is, it’s not all going to get addressed, through the work that we are doing.”

Andreassen struck a realistic tone—that the scope of issues in the Arctic far outweigh the money and political will needed to accomplish them.

And those needs are many: after an early-morning meeting with Mayor Denise Michels and the heads of Kawerak, Sitnasuaq, and other regional leaders, Andreassen opened up the floor of Nome’s City Council chambers to public input.

Nome’s Chuck Wheeler was the first to the podium—lambasting recent assessments that a deep-water harbor at Port Clarence near Brevig Mission and Teller wouldn’t affect fish, wildlife, or other subsistence resources.

“We own this land. The government is just a trustee. Number one priority is to protect the land, preserve it, and enhance it. But when economic development comes, and big money, they forget about that money. Case in point, the Port Clarence facility for the deep draft port. There’s 600 plus native tribal entities that live in these three villages, and they’re going to be impacted. Where’s their consideration? That should be a priority. I’ve got a granddaughter who lives in Brevig [Mission]. She’s going to be impacted on it. My son’s a full shareholder of Teller Native. He’s going to be impacted. To say there’s no impact is asinine,” Wheeler says.

Focusing on energy security, Gwenn Holdman with the Alaska Center for Power at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks says, for all the talk of Arctic ambitions—and the very real concerns for preparedness as more ships transit Arctic waters—the central problem of affordable, sustainable energy is what will ultimately decide the fate of many Arctic communities.

“Energy is an issue that’s going to underlie any of the goals you seek to accomplish here. When you’re looking at infrastructure build-out, when you’re looking at oil spill response, all of that, I think that the role of affordable energy has been underplayed in a lot of these conversations. I’d like you to consider thinking about energy a little more broadly,” Holdman says.

Art Ivanoff with the Bering Sea Alliance spoke to needs for education and job experience for youth in rural communities. Ivanoff says kids in those communities need exposure to the jobs and careers of people working in the Arctic—citing a recent visit to Gambell by the U.S. Coast Guard as an example.

“And for me it was like germinating a seed, and it’s really important that we give those kids that insight to career opportunities that they’ve never seen before. But these types of efforts are necessary, and critical, to build our economy but to safeguard our resources that we depend on as well,” Ivanoff says.

And Washington state senator Kevin Ranker, attending as part of the Joint Oceans Commission, urged Alaska law- and policy makers to expand the conversation about the U.S. Arctic beyond Alaska—and to other Pacific states like Washington.

“There are similar economic drivers that connect the Arctic to Washington state,” Ranker says. “What’s the port route system between the Arctic and increased vessel traffic to the ports of Tacoma and Seattle? I think its very important that we not only, in Washington, D.C., elevate the importance in the Arctic, but also in the state connections. The Arctic needs a larger congressional delegation representing the Arctic. If we can get Washington congressional delegates and Washington state legislators to start thinking why the Arctic matters, for a local reason, those are really interesting drivers that start to elevate this dialogue beyond why Alaska is the only Arctic connection.”

After the open house, the Week of the Arctic moved to Nome’s Mini Convention Center for a series of presentations and panel discussions. Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation representatives gave visitors a run-down of the Community Development Quota, or CDQ program, used to manage marine resources and community investment in the region.

Larry Cotter, CEO of APICDA —the CDQ for the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands—says the success of Alaska’s CDQ groups can be translated to other Arctic nations—an issue of heightened significance as the U.S. prepares to take over the international Arctic Council in April.

“I’d say, absolutely. What you’re talking about doing is taking a portion of a common-property resource and in essence providing that resource to the communities, to determine how to use it to the best benefit to the communities. And the same thing can be done in other arctic countries around the world,” Cotter says.

Meanwhile a separate roundtable was held late in the day involving young leaders from the Bering Strait region. Andreasson and other young professionals discussed a shared vision for a health Arctic future—involving “adaptation” and “balancing” traditional knowledge with contemporary technologies and education.

During a panel discussing maritime navigation and forecasting, Amy Holman with the National Oceania and Atmospheric Administration shared a five-year plan building more accurate forecasts for ice formation and breakup in the Bering Strait.

At another panel on oil spill response, Dennis Young—representing North Star Stevedore—urged local leaders to take an active part in long-discussed Arctic port development, and to prepare for growth. He emphasized a need to communicate with state and federal organizations to hold “foreign flagged” vessels accountable as Bering Sea traffic increases.

The Week of the Arctic conference continues in Nome on Tuesday with several workshops and a federal listening session. The conference moves to Kotzebue on Wednesday and Thursday before concluding in Barrow Friday and Saturday.

Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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