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Alaskans express concerns, hopes at Arctic meeting

Carey Restino | Arctic Sounder
One major concern for those living in Arctic towns like Barrow is the impact development of offshore oil as well as increased vessel traffic in Arctic waters could have, both on the environment and on the communities that could be burdened with dealing with the demands of industry. Loren Holmes photo

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series by The Arctic Sounder examining the dialogue from the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission's Barrow meeting in June. Click here for part one.

Amid the several days of organizational discussions and reports, the participating members of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission heard one thing loud and clear during its meeting in Barrow in June -- the people of the Arctic deserve to be listened to.

The commission, which is tasked with an initial examination of issues created by the opening of Alaska's Arctic waters, as well as recommending an action-linked Arctic policy for the state, met June 12-13 and considered an agenda that ranged from testimony by indigenous stakeholders to a teleconference with federal representatives meeting later that week in Anchorage to hear public comment on the recently released National Strategy for the Arctic Region.

Reggie Joule, mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough and representative of the Native Village of Kotzebue, said during the first day of testimony when local representatives spoke to the council, he heard one question.

"What's in it for us," Joule said. "We have the highest cost of energy anywhere. We are producing energy and have been for 40 years and we are paying the highest cost. What's in it for us with regards to energy, with regards to food security? What's in it for us for workforce development when we have such few numbers of people."

One major concern for those living in the Arctic is the impact development of offshore oil, as well as increased vessel traffic in Arctic waters, could have both on the environment and on the communities that could be burdened with dealing with the demands of industry.

Unlike the development of onshore oil reserves in Prudhoe Bay, where tax revenue contributes to the local government, offshore oil development occurs in federal waters, offering no direct financial gain to area communities. Joule noted that while there is conversation about revenue sharing between the state and federal governments, there is no guarantee that any funds from that revenue sharing would make it to the communities near the development.

"When it comes to a lot of this stuff, I can't help but be really parochial," he said. "What's in it for us."

Joule called for an Arctic policy that looked forward, considering things such as developing job-training programs so local residents have an opportunity to work in the fields that are potentially expanding in coming years.

Co-chair and Rep. Bob Herron said the commission gained some level of trust from those who testified and felt that after hearing from former North Slope Mayor Edward Itta that people had expressed the sentiment that the commission was listening.

Rep. Ben Nageak said North Slope residents were no stranger to the need to protect those things that are most precious to them. The North Slope Borough invested in scientific studies starting some 65 years ago, partnering with the scientific community to share their knowledge and learn more about the species that are integral to their culture and well being.

Jake Adams, North Slope Borough chief administrative officer and Arctic Slope Regional Corp., echoed that, saying in the early days of development of the North Slope Borough, a similar situation existed to what the Arctic communities now face.

"We realized development was going to take place but we had to find a way to have a measure of control over what's happening and create conditions that it also protects the environment," he said. "I heard people say yesterday that we are not afraid of safe and responsible development but we want it done in a way that going to protect our subsistence resource and our environment."

Adams said, however, that the Arctic communities realize they don't have a lot of say in how offshore drilling and other Arctic policy is developed.

"The commission could play a big role in convincing the federal government that we need an Arctic policy that will do both -- allow development to happen and protect the environment," he said. "Our people are apprehensive of offshore development taking place, but we realize it's going to take place. And we have to work hard to ensure that there is proper regulation and proper insurance that it's not going to hurt our whales and our seals and other mammals that our people depend on."

Council call for seat at

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, as well as others, took a slightly larger angled look at the issue, questioning the level at which the state of Alaska has been included in the federal discussion over Arctic policy.

Treadwell reported to the commission that while the federal government was reasonably receptive to the state's involvement in policy-setting conversations about the Arctic in most cases, some exceptions exist.

"We understand that sometimes Washington wants to lock things up whereas Juneau wants to open things up," Treadwell said. "What we don't understand is why we can't be involved in the process early enough to shape the structure of the draft, for example."

Treadwell expressed frustration at the federal government's lack of action on the issue of Arctic shipping policy, for example.

"We do not want to be meeting ship owners in the middle of the night after something has busted," he said. "We really want to engage with them before that happens."

Treadwell suggested the commission could help the state identify specific action items that could then be taken back to the federal government.

"We're here to protect the people that live here and protect the resources and sustainably develop the environment, and make sure that Alaska's economy doesn't go off the cliff," he said. "If we go forward with those fairly simple tenants in a state policy with specifics on what the state is doing and is willing to do, we will have an enduring dialogue and an enduring work that is positive."

Sen. Gary Stevens was less optimistic about the tone the commission was taking regarding Alaska's need to be part of the federal Arctic policy conversation. Stevens said in his analysis, a recent report to the federal government was too passive and was a way to be "totally left out of the picture."

"As I look at this document, it seems to me that we need to be a little more courageous," Stevens said. "We're saying, 'Please let us sit at the table. We're nice people and we have good things to say. Please let us sit there.' We're beseeching everyone to have us involved when we should be saying, 'By God, this is our borough and this is our state, and we don't just beg that we be at the table, by God, we demand it.'"

Stevens noted that neither the federal government nor "big oil" companies want to make an enemy out of the state of Alaska.

"They want us to be cooperative and we are cooperative but somehow it seems to me that we are missing the boat," he said. "We are not demanding to be included, we are begging to be included."

Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, noted following a teleconference with federal officials
regarding the national Arctic policy that news that no plan was in place for engaging in conversation with Alaska was mixed.

"It's both good news and bad news because it sounds like you are open to some suggestions from people about how to proceed," Ulmer said "The bad news is that if your timing is such that you actually want to have more specificity (with national Arctic policy) by fall and it's now mid-June that really begs the question, how effective can that engagement really be?"

Ulmer challenged Brendan Kelley with the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Kathy Sullivan, acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- both of whom were in Anchorage to present the recently released National Strategy for the Arctic Region -- to take the time to consult with Alaskans before setting national policy that would impact them. She noted that consulting with those who are interested in contributing both ideas and resources would likely be positive for the federal policy-setters, though it might make their timeline for completing the strategy plan unrealistic.

"Think about some way of holding public sessions to solicit those ideas from the general public," she said. "I think you will end up not only with a better product but also with more buy in from those people who will need to be good partners with you."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder. Carey Restino can be reached at crestino(at)reportalaska.com.