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Alaska's Comprehensive Arctic Policy, Challenge and Opportunity

In 2010, the state Legislature formed the Alaska Northern Waters Task Force (ANWTF), consisting of state legislators, leaders from Alaska communities, and representatives of key state and federal agencies.  These Alaskans were tasked with examining and reporting the issues surrounding the anticipated increase in shipping, resource exploration and extraction, commercial fisheries and tourism activities in Alaska’s Arctic region.

How will Alaska confidently confront the challenges and benefits from the opportunities of the Arctic that await Alaskans, while at the same time providing sustainable communities for our families and future generations?

The January 30, 2012, ANWTF report to the 27th Alaska Legislature detailed six categories of opportunity: Oil & Gas Development, Marine Transportation, Fisheries, Infrastructure, Research, and Arctic Governance.

Today, we will focus on Arctic Governance and the importance of being strategically involved and in a leadership role in the development of Arctic policies affecting Alaska.

Among the Task Force’s highest priorities was to press for the creation of a commission to develop a comprehensive state strategy for Alaska’s Arctic.  With a changing Arctic environment, Alaska faces local, national and international considerations and decisions that will continue to evolve and grow in complexity.  An Alaska Arctic Policy Commission will enable Alaska to effectively respond to unfolding events and developments surrounding and impacting our homeland.  Alaska Arctic policy discussions will, by necessity, jumpstart preparations by Alaskans to ensure that the interests of the state and its people are jealously and rightfully protected.

With the support of the Alaska House of Representatives’ Finance Committee, the introduction of House Concurrent Resolution 23 proposes to create a 16-member Alaska Arctic Policy Commission. If the Alaska Legislature does pass HCR 23, the Commission will fully examine all these issues facing the people of our state, and release a final report by Jan. 30, 2015.

The ANWTF effort and result were very valuable in scoping all the issues and asking the questions – now we need the answers.  Alaska must position itself regarding our nation’s Arctic policy – Alaska cannot take that leadership role without understanding what its own priorities should be. It’s important to note that, just like the ANWTF, the proposed Arctic policy commission will be very engaged in public outreach to Alaska residents.

The Alaska Arctic Policy Commission will provide an opportunity to remain engaged in the ongoing Arctic dialogue and debate and positively shape our state’s Arctic policy.

This Commission is an idea whose time has come.  In 2013, Canada will become the Chair of the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental group formed in 1996 that includes representatives from all eight Arctic nations and 6 indigenous groups, four of which have members in Alaska. Then in 2015, the United States will assume the responsibility of Chair of the Arctic Council.  The two countries should, and likely will, partner closely during their respective chairmanships. The Alaska Arctic Policy Commission’s deliberations and recommendations will be vital in assuring that Alaska makes the most of that partnership. Historically, the Arctic Council has concentrated on environmental treaties, but its mandate is appropriately expanding.  In May 2011, the Arctic Council formalized a search and rescue agreement detailing plans for Arctic emergency response. The Arctic Council also created a task force on oil spill preparedness and response. The task force is co-chaired by Russia and the United States, and is meeting for the third time in Anchorage on March 20-22, 2012.  Should the Council’s mandate expand further into economic development issues in the Arctic, the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission’s usefulness and vitality will only increase.

Another important factor in Arctic governance is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In 2011, the Alaska Legislature passed House Joint Resolution 19, urging the United States Senate to ratify UNCLOS. International cooperation in the Arctic must be strengthened with the force of law recognized by all Arctic countries. Ratification will allow the United States to peacefully legitimize its Extended Continental Shelf claims in the Arctic and gain access to potential major oil and gas reserves, notably in the Chukchi Sea.  Failure to ratify jeopardizes the United States’ effectiveness in shaping future ocean policies and risks losing any strategic initiative in the Arctic. This issue is gaining additional traction as our nation’s citizens become more aware of it. During Senator Murkowski’s address to the Legislature February 23rd, she said there may soon be “a window of opportunity to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, before election year politics take over in Washington.”

The Arctic Caucus, a working group within the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER), is also a key partner in Arctic policy.  PNWER is a nonpartisan forum for regional planning that supports collaborative economic growth.  Its membership includes governmental, business, and non-profit representatives from the states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, and the Canadian government jurisdictions of Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

In 2009, the PNWER members from Alaska, Yukon, and Northwest Territories formed the Arctic Caucus to explore issues of common interest, including economic development opportunities, the enhancement of our “northern latitudes” way of life, cooperation on scientific research, and emergency & disaster preparation. Current priorities of the Arctic Caucus include strategies to maximize opportunities for North American interests during the Canadian and United States chairmanships of the Arctic Council.

In conclusion, Alaska and the Arctic are inseparable.

 As Alaskans, we will decide our own future in the Arctic.

Determining and defining Alaska’s comprehensive Arctic policy is an important and serious responsibility for Alaska. When decided, it will deliver an open and clear message to others who attempt to affect our interests in Alaska and the Arctic.

 

Bob Herron (D-Bethel) has represented House District 38, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, in the Alaska Legislature since 2008. A member of the Northern Waters Task Force, Rep. Herron last Session sponsored HJR 15, supporting the Arctic Caucus; and this Session is sponsoring HJR 34, asking Congress to fund icebreakers and a Coast Guard Arctic base.

Reggie Joule has represented House District 40, the North Slope Borough and the Northwest Arctic Borough, in the Alaska Legislature since 1996.  He was the Chair of the Northern Waters Task Force and is the Chair of the Alaska House Bush Caucus. This Session, he is the sponsor of HCR 23, which would create a 16 member Arctic Policy Commission. 

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