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New Northwest Alaska mayor has work cut out for him

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Loren Holmes photo

Nearly three months after his election to the Northwest Arctic Borough's top seat, mayor Reggie Joule is in some ways still working through the logistics of transitioning into his new position. He's pretty much got all the borough heads in place, and a recent retreat with the assembly was productive, he said.

But in other, arguably more long-range arenas, Joule said he feels well prepped. Joule, a 16-year state representative, said he is watching issues on Arctic policy and development very closely, with eyes honed by years on various committees focused on the Arctic. It was his observations about the rapid pace of developments in around his hometown of Kotzebue that inspired him to run for mayor.

"There was and is quite a lot of interest in developing the resources of the Arctic, whether it's increased marine transportation or the activity with the outer continental shelf, or even a different kind of fishery in Arctic waters, as well as all the infrastructure that comes with all of that," Joule said Monday.

Joule said the challenge will be allowing economic development while honoring the ever-present need to protect the borough's high priority of food security.

"It's a matter of how do you balance those," he said.

Joule said while the wheels of government at a federal and state level may not move at lightening speed, the pressure is on from other countries that are developing their Arctic programs rapidly, such as Canada, Russia, China and Korea. In December, a liquefied natural gas carrier successfully voyaged from Norway to Japan with the help of two Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers, Joule said, shaving 22 days off its typical trip through the Suez Canal.

"Some of the attention is going to brought to us because other countries are not waiting," Joule said.

While Congress is focused on trying to build the economy and seems to be giving little thought to Alaska and the Arctic development, it is likely that private enterprise will step in and partner with public entities to build infrastructure needed to support industrial development, Joule said. Other industries, such as mining, have been developed in similar ways in the north. While that may mean less public oversight, that has not been Joule's experience when dealing with other projects that were a collaborative effort between private companies, Native corporations and public funds. In those cases, the private companies were diligent about seeking public input to projects, and being responsive to community member concerns. The Red Dog Mine, for example, planned for having to store material for up to two weeks because of a pledge not to haul material during caribou migrations.

"I continue to see open dialogue," he said. "There is a recognition that food security is a big issue."

Joule said he expects partnerships to be key to all the potential development in the region, including the possibility of a port at Cape Blossom south of Kotzebue. Funds were recently approved to build a road to the site, both through a bond vote as well as state appropriations over the last two years. There is competition for a port site in the Arctic that would provide services to the many entities traveling through the waters - from tourist ships to oil rigs - from other areas such as Nome and the north slope. The fact that the Kotzebue region has experience with building partnerships to get projects done is an asset in this case, Joule said.

"The port is going to be one of the top priorities, absolutely," he said. "One of the successes of this area is people have been able to come together."

Public safety an issue

This summer, several incidents in the Northwest Arctic Borough shone light on an ever-present need to ensure public safety in the region. The challenge, Joule said, is funding. While the funding might exist to put more VPSOs in communities, the trick is finding a place for them to live. Housing is typically tight in communities, and the cost of providing housing and heating that home through the winter can be too much for some areas.

"A lot of communities are strapped so maintaining that commitment is a struggle for them," he said.

Three VPSOs are currently used as "rovers" who are placed across the region as needed.

He said another challenge of the VPSO program is the need for officers to be gone for eight weeks to train, which is a challenge for those with families and commitments. The program is going through some restructuring to help ease that, he said, but other options, such as training more VPOs, is also being explored. It's also difficult to be a law enforcement officer when you have grown up in the community and are charged with being a first responder to incidents where you know the people involved.

However, the need is obvious, Joule said, and identified as a top priority by the assembly.

"If you look at some of the incidents we've had this last year in this area, we've had several that involved weapons, and that highlights the need for public safety," he said.

Energy cost relief always high on list

As temperatures dip into the negatives, the region again faces the challenge of the sky-high cost of heating homes. The borough continues to explore alternative energy opportunities, Joule said, from an expanding wind generation program to other alternatives. But oil heat continues to be the staple, he said. The easiest way to reduce that cost, he said, is to make homes more energy efficient.

"We need to continue to explore those options with the understanding that they of themselves are not the total solution," Joule said.

Joule said wind turbines, which have been a part of the Kotzebue program for several years, are now being installed in several villages.

Looking ahead

Joule said he expects to have his top staff positions filled very soon, and plans to announce those positions in coming weeks, after accepting the resignation of all the department heads as well as the borough clerk.

He said it has been a while since there were any changes in borough administration, since former mayor Martha Whiting was a staff member to her predecessor Ross Schaeffer, who replaced Al Adams.

"I'm working to fill those positions and very close to having all that done," he said.

Kivalina evacuation route, shelter a pressing need

Another top priority of the new mayor is securing the remaining funding to build an evacuation road for the community of Kivalina, built on a low-lying wedge of land that is threatened with flooding each winter by storms.

The community has identified a site it prefers for an evacuation spot as well as the construction of a new school, but the difficulty now lies in getting the project moving forward, Joule said.

"We know we need to do this," Joule said. "We just need the entities to work together."

Joule said as the borough moves forward, he hopes to communicate more with the communities he serves, starting with a hearty wish that all have a wonderful holiday.

"I'd like to wish everybody a very merry Christmas and hope that everyone can enjoy it," he said.

This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.