Kotzebue residents want a say if Arctic traffic brings the military back to town

children play on a big blowup in the ocean
Kotzebue Sound, 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is separated from the open Chukchi Sea by 70 miles of shallow, protected water. On warm summer days, it’s a place to recreate, often young swimmers brave the cold and take to the water. Beyond the Sound, an increasing number of large industrial ships and other marine traffic are taking advantage of declining sea ice and increasingly navigable waters. (Emily Schwing)

This is the second part of a series. Read the first part here.

Concerns about national security are heating up in the rapidly changing Arctic. In 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard opened a seasonal airbase in Kotzebue. The community was once home to a permanent Air Force station, but that closed in 1983, as the Cold War wound down.

In recent years, more fighter jets have been based in Alaska, cold weather training for soldiers here has increased and an effort to provide the U.S. Coast Guard with a new, state-of-the-art icebreaker is underway. Russia lies about 250 miles west of Kotzebue and conflict with Ukraine has only fueled discussion about whether a more permanent military presence along Alaska’s west coast is both needed and warranted.

“This is our table,” said Vice President of Lands for NANA Qaulluq Cravalho. “We have to make sure that we’re there when it comes to policy making decisions because there is activity happening.”

NANA is one of the largest Alaska Native corporations in the state. Cravalho is also a member of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. She said any military buildup in Northwest Alaska should include input from Alaska Natives.

“People can think of the Arctic as this pristine place where there’s no activity happening and that might be relatively true. On the U.S. side, there’s not as much activity, but on the Russian side, there is and all of our food resources go over there and come back,” she said. “So, it’s all one environment. There’s a lot of risk associated with it, and so how do we make sure we’re at the table to define what it looks like?”

a woman smiles near the shore
Qaulluq Cravalho. (Emily Schwing)

In recent years, the Arctic has seen a drastic increase in industrial marine traffic in the region. According to the Arctic Council, marine traffic increased by 44% through the Northwest Passage between 2013 and 2019. As a self-described Coastal Iñupiaq, Cravalho has concerns about what more ships and a beefed-up military presence might mean for subsistence resources in the region. People here are heavily reliant on marine mammals and fish that provide a sustained food source.

“When you’re harvesting, when you’re participating in these activities, this is how you learn our culture and our language,” she said. “This is how it’s passed down generation to generation, because of the close relationship with the land in the water. It’s a primary means not only to provide sustenance for ourselves and our people in our communities. It’s also a primary means for our culture to continue.”

That culture has become a defining feature in Nate Kotch’s life, since he arrived here from Hawaii in his early 20s.

“So, it was certainly a culture shock to me to some degree,” he said.

The Air Force stationed him here in in the 1970s. He is one of the last remaining Kotzebue residents that remembers when there was an active military station here. Today, it functions as a long range radar site, with minimal full time civilian staff.

“It’s taken time for me to even learn what the culture really is in the community,” Kotch said. “I mean, the Native community, you know? What are their values, what are their needs? You know, what are they looking for?”

a man in a black hat poses for a portrait
The U.S. Air Force stationed Nate Kotch in Kotzebue in 1975. (Emily Schwing)

After his time with the Air Force, he married into an Iñupiaq family and spent 27 years on Kotzebue’s City Council.

He said if the military ever decided to resurrect a base here, the community would need to be involved “because if that doesn’t happen that way, then there’s going to be a negative impact.”

Last October, the United States rolled out a new National Strategy for the Arctic Region. In a video posted to Twitter U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken included national security as one of four main pillars of a new National Security Strategy for the Arctic.

“We have no higher priority than defending our country and our people and securing the Arctic is key to that,” Blinken said.

Currently, a military buildup is just a discussion and no decisions have been made to move forward. There is talk of basing Coast Guard Personnel here permanently. There has also been talk of developing a naval base here, complete with a deep water port.

an intersection in a rural area
The U.S. Government built an Air Force Station in Kotzebue at the beginning of the Cold War. Construction was completed in 1958. Once a radar station, it was closed in 1983, as the conflict began to cool off. Today, it functions as part of the Alaska NORAD system. Minimal civilian staff are tasked with its upkeep. There are only a handful of people in Kotzebue today who were once full-time soldiers at the station when it was fully operational. (Emily Shcwing)

In early August, the Sound bustled with small boats. The fishermen inside lined up at a handful of docks, waiting to offload chum salmon. Overhead, small commuter planes shuttled cargo and passengers to nearby remote villages.

Qaulluq Cravalho said if the military does come this far north, the community will be ready.

“This community is not unfamiliar with it,” she said. “We’ve had a base here in the past. Certainly there’s always that risk of the community changing. So, it’s how we interact with that change that’s really important, right? You know, the tools and types of infrastructure needed to be present here have really changed over time.”

Kotzebue is set back from the open Chukchi sea by nearly 70 miles of shallow, protective water in Kotzebue Sound. So, even though marine traffic in the Arctic is increasing — it can feel far away here.

people on a skiff near the shore
In late summer, the chum salmon arrive in Kotzebue Sound. It’s a fishery that’s not well understood. Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game doesn’t maintain long-term data on the fishery, but in recent years, those who fish commercially have seen booming harvests. (Emily Schwing)

What 85-year-old elder James McClellan is delighted to focus on is the successful chum fishery.

He’s spent many afternoons sitting on the beach, peering through binoculars as boats pulled in to offload their catch. He said 2022 is the first summer he didn’t fish commercially. 

“I just like living from the country,” he said with a smile. It’s good. It keeps you healthy.”

The night before, he said, he’d had salmon for dinner. “Oh, it was good! Fried salmon, fried potatoes and onions and, boy, it was good.”

As McClellan scanned the horizon, what he couldn’t see is beyond Kotzebue Sound: a growing traffic jam of industrial ships, a potential for increased conflict with a foreign neighbor and the unknown impacts of a changing climate on food resources, including the chum salmon.

This ongoing series is made possible through a grant from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund.

a worn polar bear statute near a wooden home
All over the community of Kotzebue, the past seems to be part of the immediate present. The community of 3,100 people relies on subsistence hunting and fishing and has seen the military come and go. “We’ve had a base here in the past,” said Qaulluq Cravalho. “ Certainly there’s always that risk of the community changing. So it’s how we interact with that change that’s really important, right?” (Emily Schwing)
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