Arctic leaders outline local priorities in letter to President Obama

Arctic waters seen from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Photo: NASA Goddard Center.
Arctic waters seen from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Photo: NASA Goddard Center.

A celebration took place in Kotzebue as final preparations are made for President Obama’s visit today. And with the spotlight on the Northwest Arctic hub — for the first visit by an American president above the Arctic Circle — local leaders have drafted a letter outlining their vision for the Arctic’s future.

Putting to rest clean-up efforts and last-minute preparations, Kotzebue residents gathered at the community school for a potluck Tuesday night — sharing food, song, and culture with the dozens of visitors from the president’s advance team and relatives who came to see the historic visit firsthand.

A round of Native Youth Olympics games and music from the Midnight Sun Drummers and Dancers were the backdrop as locals gathered to talk about what they hope the president takes away from his trip. For elder Enoch “Attamuk” Shiedt, it’s changes in the land he’s seen first hand.

Shiedt has worked for years as a subsistence coordinator. He recalls his grandpa telling him when he was just nine years old that the warming trend will eventually hurt his people.

“And now it’s here,” Shiedt said. “It’s not only global warming — it’s the erosion that’s the worst thing up this way. We’re losing some of our villages.”

Linda Hadley — originally from Deering but now teaching kindergarten in Kotzebue — sees it more as a historical moment.

“I believe it’s a momentous occasion,” she said. “It allows the president to see what a community the size of ours in the Arctic is about.” She said that having someone of his caliber come and visit “provides our community a voice in the national conversation.”

But outside the school halls and across town, the region’s part of that conversation was taking shape in the form of a letter to the president, outlining local priorities from climate change to energy.

Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule was the first signature on the letter that includes tribes, Alaska Native corporations, local governments, health care providers, and more. On climate change, the letter points squarely to Kivalina — the community of about 400 on a barrier island along the Chukchi Sea coast.

“There are immediate needs for sure,” said Joule about the situation in Kivalina. “The community does need to get to safety. But more than that, the community needs to relocate.” Joule says this is not a time to be shy. “It’s a time for education — for Alaskans and for the people of the United States.”

Bearing the brunt of a changing climate, the shorefast ice that once protected the community from turbulent weather now forms later and later — bringing storms, flooding, and erosion. In just ten years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the village will be uninhabitable.

While details are still few, the White House has announced a plan to put the Denali Commission — an independent federal agency working in Alaska since 1998 — in charge of a new mitigation and relocation effort for communities across Alaska. It’s a partnership Tim Schuerch with Manilaq said is a good fit.

Schuerch said the Denali Commission has been a great partner in developing most of the village clinics in the region.

“We do have a lot of confidence in the efficiency and effectiveness what it comes to the Denali Commission, in terms of assisting us with our infrastructure needs, including those that are needed to respond to climate change,” he said.

The letter covers a lot of ground — outlining the need to develop a deep-draft port above the Arctic Circle and advocating sharing federal revenue from offshore oil drilling with local residents. In many ways it’s an academic breakdown of what northwest Alaska leaders say they’ll need for the future.

But Wayne Westlake, the president and CEO of NANA Regional Corporation, said it’ll take more than just a letter for Kotzebue’s voice to be heard. Westlake said he hopes the president gets the “feeling” of the region.

“There’s something here that is important not only to our country, but to the health of the people of the region,” he said. “And that’s what I’m hoping for — that he’ll get that feel that you can’t describe. He’ll tell his grandkids about it.”

President Obama begins his last day in Alaska with a morning in Dillingham. He’ll land in Kotzebue around 5 o’clock this evening, and should be flying back to Anchorage — and eventually Washington, D.C. — by 9 o’clock tonight.

Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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