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Mayor Itta: State too much of an industry cheerleader

Patti Epler

GIRDWOOD -- North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta blasted the governor’s administration Tuesday before a collection of national and world leaders as wrongheaded, divisive and ignorant of local communities' needs in the way it has handled Arctic development.

"The state only comes to life when there's an opportunity to cheer for industry," Itta told the Arctic Imperative Summit, accusing state leaders of failing to acknowledge the effect of oil development on Native culture and communities.

Instead, Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration has missed opportunities to strengthen Alaska's position by speaking with a unified voice when dealing with the federal government or the industry, he said.

Itta was the last speaker at a conference that saw dozens of leaders from Native communities, business and industry, state and federal government, and other Arctic countries try to find common ground and a way to move forward with investment in the Arctic. The summit had, until the very end, been a conference that seemed steadfastly positive about the state, the future of Arctic development, and industry.

Itta's theme was not a new one -- he has spoken in the past and testified before the state Legislature about his growing concern that the Parnell administration has become increasingly confrontational toward the federal government, often choosing litigation over discussion to resolve differences.

But his speech Tuesday was his strongest statement yet on his disappointment with the administration's lack of engagement with the local people when it comes to federal issues.

"Alaskans and our state government need to take a good look in the mirror and reflect on the attitude toward the federal government," he said, "because the future of oil is not on state lands but on federal lands."

The state must have a better working relationship with the Feds. If not, he warned, “Alaska will only be seen as a yes man to industry” and will lose influence to shape decisions.

As Itta spoke, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell stood in the doorway of the conference room, listening to the mayor’s criticism. Treadwell could not be reached for comment after the conference, and a Parnell spokeswoman did not return a phone call Tuesday. The three-day conference at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood was sponsored by the Alaska Dispatch and various business organizations.

In an interview after his speech, Itta cited the conflict over the state's coastal zone management program as an example of Parnell ignoring local input. The program, which has been in place since the 1970s, is set to expire this month because a measure to reauthorize it fell apart in the Legislature. The dispute centered largely on whether local knowledge should carry equal weight to scientific evidence.

In losing the program, the state also loses a formal voice in federal decision-making on projects that take place on federal land or offshore but often affect nearby communities.

"It's a shame," Itta said, about the loss of the program. "It's a very good example of what this has turned into, the divisive issue that it should not be."

In the speech as well as the interview, Itta said the state is failing to provide the necessary leadership that would lead to collaboration with federal officials and the oil industry.

Instead, the North Slope Borough has been the one to forge a new partnership with Shell Oil Co. when it comes to offshore oil development. For instance, he said, the borough has convinced Shell to close down drilling operations during the annual bowhead whale migration, something the company agreed to do without a rule or regulation being put in place.

The state's unwillingness to cooperate with federal officials makes it harder for the government to strike a balance in development decisions and state residents and local communities suffer, he contends.

"We're missing opportunities to influence federal decisions and to bring Alaskans together at the same time," Itta said. "The North Slope is a long way from Juneau … and Juneau is a long way from Washington, D.C."

Amanda Coyne contributed to this story. Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.