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Melting Arctic: Think of the Bering Strait as the next Panama Canal

Alice Rogoff

On Monday, Sens. Murkowski and Begich will lead a roundtable discussion on how to get Alaskans more involved in planning for increased shipping traffic resulting from a melting Arctic.

As Arctic sea ice melts at unprecedented rates, opening new shipping routes, it is time for Alaskans to demand a seat at the table for planning coastal infrastructure. It is no longer a question of if but when the increasing marine traffic will affect our lives. But policymakers making decisions today about our coastal future are in Washington, D.C., New York, Beijing, and other commercial capitals of the world, not to mention Siberia, where Russia is developing the competitive western shores of the Bering Strait.

Why are Alaskans not a part of the planning?

Part of the answer may be that too few of our leaders have come to grips with the magnitude of the stakes sorrounding these issues -- stakes that will be measured in dollars for port infrastructure investment, construction, jobs, and avoidance of what will otherwise be the negative consequences: ocean pollution, jobs going to imported workers, and impacts on marine mammals, to name a few. The time has come to take a leadership role in how and where Arctic infrastructure and commerce will be developed in our state. And the first step in assuming that role is to open a full and informed public discussion of the crucial issues involved.

On Monday, March 1, Alaska House, New York is bringing together leaders from the public and private sectors, including state and federal officials, for a roundtable discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. Alaska's U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich will lead a nonpartisan discussion about the state's response to the melting Arctic. The roundtable will focus on how to best coordinate the work of the White House Ocean Policy Task Force and various federal legislative initiatives to attract private-sector development and state and local adaptation efforts. Transcripts will be available online at www.cfr.org following the discussion, as well as a detailed follow-up conversation you can follow at AlaskaDispatch.com. The live Webcast will run from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. [AST] Monday.

The world's ships are already sailing past Western and Northern Alaska. European cruise ships ply the famed Northwest Passage in summer and discharge passengers directly on our beaches - lightered by dinghies - in villages from Barrow to Nome. Even without docks, the tourists are arriving - sometimes virtually unannounced. On the western coast, cargo ship traffic is accelerating. Last fall, two container ships made it north through the Bering Strait, turned left at the top of Russia and continued on to northern Europe, escorted by Russian icebreakers. For Alaska and the Northwest Passage to be competitive in Arctic shipping, the Coast Guard needs functioning icebreakers to escort vessels. But Congress has yet to provide funding for new icebreakers, one example of how we're falling behind as a country and state.

Coast Guard experts today predict that in my lifetime, the volume of shipping passing through or near Dutch Harbor will be as large as it is in Singapore today. Yet we haven't even decided where a single U.S. deepwater port will be located in Western Alaska, let alone started to plan for its construction. Without a port, the Coast Guard can't effectively perform its statutory roles of spill response, coastal protection and lifesaving as ship traffic grows in northern Alaska waters. Currently, commercial ships can use a deepwater port across the Bering Strait, in Provideniya, Russia.

As Alaskans have learned from countless other subjects, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore oil development, outsiders will be all too pleased to make decisions for us. The U.S. Department of Defense is about to launch a two-year process to designate the best location for Alaska's Bering Sea deepwater port. With the 53-mile-wide choke point at the Inupiat village of Wales - and with the tiny island village of Little Diomede squarely in the middle of the narrow channel - federal officials are looking at water depth and shoreline characteristics to build the ideal port. How many of us know the top contenders for a port location? And yet, for the people of these regions, this development could be vastly more significant than a future natural gas pipeline.

The recently released Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment recommends constructive and early engagement of Alaska's Arctic residents about marine development projects to help reduce the negative impacts of more shipping traffic on our villages. This summer is the perfect time for local and federal agencies to mount an exploratory trip with the Coast Guard from Adak to Dutch Harbor, the Bering Strait and beyond. The purpose should be to meet with the local residents and gather information so Alaskans have a say in the planning of any future Arctic marine developments.

The state itself should also demand more of a say in what happens in Alaska's waters. The first three nautical miles of offshore waters in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean fall under state jurisdiction, and currently there is no state entity charged with assisting the feds to set shipping policy in that zone. The Alaska Legislature should appoint a taskforce to serve as the coordinating entity between the myriad federal, local and international groups working on this large and complicated subject. Bill Noll, a longtime Alaska business leader, would call it a "Northern Waters Commission," modeled after a similar group that has managed Alaska's world-renowned sustainable fisheries. Without such a body, the state will merely become the recipient of decisions made in the Lower 48, again.

It's time to take charge of our own destiny and determine how to manage our most important resources. It is our coastline and we need to be proactive stewards of it.

Alice Rogoff is chairwoman and founder of Alaska House, New York, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of issues facing Alaskans. She is also publisher of Alaska Dispatch. Her opinions are her own.