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For US, Arctic's comforting obscurity about to end

Alice Rogoff
It is only a matter of time before the warming Arctic becomes busy with development. But unless we take actions on our own behalf now, others will act, and not to our advantage. Alaska Dispatch illustration

We now have a national Arctic strategy document issued by the White House. Of course, it doesn’t say everything Alaskans had hoped for. But it is a big step, all very constructive, and an invitation to us to “put meat on the bones."

As a resident of this great state, the potential of this subject strikes me as so important that we should focus on it while taking our minds off the narrower subject of our oil and gas economic lifeline. I believe Arctic development IS the future of this state, much as it surely will encompass oil-and-gas development for some decades.

I am not an academic expert and I certainly don't claim to be clairvoyant. I'm just someone who cares deeply about the future of Alaska and sees the Arctic as offering us an enormous opportunity -- for better, for worse, or both. The climate is changing, the Arctic ice is melting much faster than expected, and the northern seas are increasingly busy. This is fact. Most experts now say we will have an ice-free north pole within the next five to 10 years.

In short, the region is opening to marine commerce and the world is starting to pay attention. The U.S. Arctic's comforting obscurity is about to end. The name of the Bering Sea -- and the Bering Strait -- will become known in American geography. But unless we -- Alaskan Arctic residents -- take actions on our own behalf now, others will act, and not to our advantage.

So dream with me for a moment. Here is what Alaska could look like if we start acting decisively about what we want in our future:

Imagine it is the year 2030. The Arctic Ocean is virtually ice-free, requiring only intermittent icebreaking in the winter. The “center route” for shipping over the North Pole is nearly as well travelled as the Panama Canal. The volume of cargo shipped around and across the Arctic Ocean is equal to the volume in the Port of Singapore, which saw 471 million tons of cargo in 2009.

There are two “twinned” transshipment ports for transferring goods to ice-enabled hulls for the trans-polar crossing. One is in Dutch Harbor, twice as large as that port is today. The other is on the northern coast of Iceland. A new Bering Strait Arctic port has been built near Nome, with deepwater facilities just a 60-mile drive along the Bob Blodgett Highway at Port Clarence. The waters off Nome have periodic winter ice, but its shipping channel and shallow-draft harbor is kept open by local icebreakers when needed.

The Nome-Port Clarence port complex has a small boat harbor in Nome with longer piers, fuel docks, repair facilities, tugs and support watercraft of all types. The large fishing and crabbing fleet have expanded as facilities for them grew. Pleasure boats are there, too. A waterfront resort fronts onto the Bering Sea. The city of Nome now has a population of 10,000.

Adjacent to the port, a highway interchange leads to the deepwater Port Clarence harbor, 60 miles to the west. The highway also heads due east, the first major new highway in Alaska, linking Fairbanks and Anchorage with Nome. There is a high-speed adjacent railroad line.

The old Port Clarence LORAN site -- the only natural deepwater in the northern Bering Sea -- has been rebuilt into a joint U.S. Navy/Coast Guard facility of immense national security importance. Offshore oil and gas exploration companies house boats of all sizes and drill rigs. Dry docks have been built, making ship repair its own local economy. Ten miles east, along Grantley Harbor, a graphite mine is expanding, and there is a bustling town near the former tiny village of Teller.

Fishing is booming in Nome, Alaska, along with infrastructure.

Now move your mind's eye 50 miles northwest, to the Bering Strait. Little Diomede is a village fortified with some U.S. national security assets and an electronic observation post. Regular helicopter service makes the long-standing indigenous community a much more vibrant village. The Russian population of Big Diomede has doubled as the military base on its northern shore has expanded. Twenty miles east of Diomede, the Alaska village of Wales -- on the eastern edge of the Bering Strait -- has its own Coast Guard presence, along with search-and-rescue support facilities run by the villagers. Up and down the Bering Sea coastline, villagers have been added to the ranks of Alaska Marine Pilots.

Move north and south to see the secondary and tertiary port development. First, Cape Blossom, about 10 miles south of Kotzebue and connected by road, is a medium draft port supporting local and regional transportation. Just 250 miles from the Ambler mining district, it is the transit hub for shipments of gold and rare-earth minerals, which have brought hundreds of people and much Kobuk River traffic to the region. Kotzebue has grown into a city of 10,000.

Southwest of Nome by 150 miles, St. Lawrence Island is both in the Bering Sea's main shipping channel and at the second-closest point between Alaska and the Russian mainland. The village of Gambell is less than 40 miles from the Russian coast. It now has a small boat harbor with a marine security outpost for navigation monitoring. The ports of Provideniya and Anadyr, due west of Gambell,  are  transshipment and servicing hubs for Russian vessels transiting the Arctic Ocean from the port of Murmansk. These towns are now connected by rail to Mongolia, itself a large exporter of minerals. The large workforce on the Russian coast employs thousands of transient Chinese nationals.

On the northern coast of St. Lawrence Island lies the village of Savoonga. It also has a small boat harbor, along with a fish-processing plant and a summer tourism industry, courtesy of Bering Sea cruises. South of St Lawrence Island, the Pribilof Islands of St. George and St. Paul and the village of Mekoryuk, on Nunivak Island, also lie along the shipping channel. They, too, have seasonal docks and search and rescue training. Cruise ships stop by regularly, resulting in an increase in village commerce.

And last but surely not least, the port of Barrow is our northernmost Arctic asset. Despite its shallow water, this is the home port for support to the oil, gas and LNG facilities along the Beaufort Sea coastline to Prudhoe Bay. There is a burgeoning trans-Northwest Passage tourism hub, developed jointly with our northwest Canadian neighbors.

Who is employed in all these ports? Alaskans. They’ve been educated in their home regions, and then locally trained in marine-specific occupations. They are marine pilots, navigators, mining engineers, electronic technicians and harbormasters. There is nearly full employment among those looking for work the Bering Sea-Northwest Alaska region. This economic activity taken together generates a large and growing share of the state’s GDP.

The economic benefit has brought world-class professional activity to all of these places, large and small, that used to be thought of as “drains” on the state treasury. The state’s “Railbelt” now extends to the Bering Sea and with it, all the potential for even further development. Alaska has a growth rate that exceeds every state in the United States.

OK. That’s where the dream ends. Back to where things stand today. This picture won’t paint itself. We Alaskans have to work at making it a reality.

If the decision-making and planning doesn’t start soon, at least not in a concerted way, the development will still occur but it will be in Russia, facing us on the western shore of the Bering Sea. We will be sorry spectators. That is not only a huge, lost opportunity for Alaska, but it is a national security threat.

What is  the nature of the threat?

If the Bering Strait’s western coast is the new commercial hub of the marine shipping world, Alaska will be its neglected sibling. The water will be polluted throughout, courtesy of circular ocean currents. The coastline will be polluted and scarred with the rusted detritus of a largely unregulated shipping economy through the Bering Strait. Many Alaska villages will be depopulated by a lack of economic opportunity. Their ancient cultures will be at risk of disappearing, along with the vast amount of traditional knowledge accumulated over thousands of years. The marine mammal population will be gone. There will be small boat harbors in Nome, at Cape Blossom and in Barrow. Nothing else.

Refueling, pilot and tug boats, and other shore-based and emergency services will done in Provideniya or Anadyr.

That is why this is an “Arctic imperative.” We have to begin acting. Well-planned development cannot happen overnight. Failing to plan for it starting today means it is less and less likely to happen by 2030. Decisions are already being made in every other Arctic (and some non-Arctic) nations to improve their competitive positions in the new world of far northern commerce. The late-comers will be the weakest competitors. As the old adage reminds us, “To the leader goes not all the spoils, but surely the most.”

We Alaskans have to make big, hard decisions. When the United States becomes chair of the Arctic Council in 2015 (and we hope its meeting that year will take place in Alaska, as it should), Alaska should be moving forward, telling the rest of the world how we see the Bering Sea system of U.S. ports developing to keep apace of the shipping traffic.

What are those decisions? They are straightforward:

1) Designate the location of  the primary U.S. Arctic deepwater port at Nome/Port Clarence. As a result, the U.S. Department of Defense can then start basing operations there -- a cornerstone to the opening of the Arctic and a national policy on how to manage it. Then take the state actions of authorizing bonding authority and AIDEA participation so private dollars can pay to build the port.

2) Designate that Cape Blossom and Barrow be developed as regional ports with a series of smaller facilities in every village along the Bering Sea shipping channel.   All they will need is a seasonal dock, moorings for small boats, shore-based services for tourism, fueling and homeland security. That will allow Alaska to live up to what will be the “oil-spill response” responsibility under the agreement to be ratified at the Arctic Council this week in Sweden.

3) Just as importantly, we Alaskans must reassess our state tax structure on mining, natural gas and other resources coming into play as the Arctic opens to shipping and new resource potential. All of this activity combined over time can substantially reduce the contribution that oil makes to the state’s economy. But our state’s tax structure needs a complete overhaul for that to be true. We’re learning the hard way this year  that the best time to rationalize tax rates is before the industry is dominant -- not after. Let’s not repeat that mistake.

The old sports analogy applies here, as it often does in life: Playing offense is a lot more effective than defense. Offense means confronting the future and helping to shape it before it’s handed to us from the actions of others.

Alaska is not only an owner state -- the US is an Arctic owner nation. Let’s act like it.

Alice Rogoff is co-founder of The Arctic Circle, a nonprofit established to facilitate dialogue and build relationships to confront the Arctic's greatest challenges. She is also the publisher and owner of Alaska Dispatch. For more about Rogoff's views on the Arctic, watch her recent interviews with Bloomberg News here and here.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.