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Alaskans deserve a voice in US Arctic policy

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

If the standing-room only response to a visit from federal officials involved in the recently released Arctic policy is any indication, Alaskans seem to feel decidedly left out of the process of crafting the document that will define the future of the country's Arctic Policy.

In May, the Obama administration released its National Strategy for the Arctic Region with three areas highlighted: moving forward with U.S. security interests, pursuing responsible Arctic region stewardship and strengthening international cooperation.

It is possible that the administration left out one key part of the process -- strengthening cooperation with the very area it is setting policy for.

As Sen. Lisa Murkowski told us last week, getting federal lawmakers to pay attention to the importance of Arctic issues is far from simple. Some pointed to the Obama's administration's recent release of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region as an indication that more importance was being given now to an area the rest of the world certainly is paying attention to.

According to the White House, the strategy was the result of the efforts of more than 20 federal departments and agencies as well as Senators Mark Begich, Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, the state, and Alaska Native communities. According to the crafters of the policy, conversations have been going on for decades.

But the obvious concern of so many Alaskans intimately involved with Arctic policy expressed at this week's roundtable speaks to a disconnect.

Arguably the man most knowledgeable about all of this, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard's 17th District in Alaska, spoke definitively at the session urging the federal government to take Arctic issues more seriously and move swiftly to react to changing conditions in the north.

Events are preceding policy, Ostebo said, noting that weak sea ice left portions of the Arctic critical to shipping routes two weeks earlier than ever before this year, opening the way for shipping traffic through the Arctic.

The Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, which recently held a meeting in Barrow, told the federal representatives that it wanted more inclusion in Arctic policy moving forward as the government developed a plan for implementing its newly released policy.

Similarly, residents of the Arctic expressed concern that food security issues were not being adequately considered. Others spoke on the need for more oil spill preparedness. And concern was expressed that the Arctic needed to be much more in the forefront of national attention by lawmakers.

Federal officials tasked with absorbing all that Alaska has to say about its strategy thanked those who participated in the discussion, and encouraged more of the same. Hopefully that is not just lip service, and the concerns will be individually addressed in future meetings and discussions. While its true that as a nation, the Arctic is important, it is far more important to those who live there and those in the state who will be impacted by the actions taken on a federal level.

As the federal government moves forward with implementation of its Arctic Policy, let's hope it makes choices and decisions that are solidly vetted by locals. Without that voice, these policies will almost certainly be misguided and off-base.

At the best, they will be ineffective. At the worst, the federal policies could set a path for the Arctic that is detrimental.

If anything, the federal Arctic policy needs to be expanded, critics say. It is 13 pages long, and was released just before the Arctic Council meeting, leading some to believe the government was simply checking a box rather than considering true policy. In comparison, one reviewer noted, Finland's Arctic Strategy is 96 pages. Denmark's is 59 pages.

So more work needs to be done. It's true that it's almost impossible to create a strategy and policy with as wide a scope as a National Arctic policy without some debate and dissent.

But the recent discussion in Anchorage indicates much more -- a lack of inclusion by the federal government to the people who will be most impacted by its actions. That's a poor way to build policy, and if Ostebo is right, there isn't much, if any, time to get it right before policy is forced to react to the situations everyone has been predicting for years.

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared. It is republished here with permission.

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