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The Continuing Evolution of Arctic Policy

The state is slow to catch up with the world



Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series Alaska Business Monthly will publish regarding Arctic policy. It is a complicated subject with many entities and the writer has chosen to focus first on the local perspective. A glossary about each of the major organizations involved in Arctic policy is included.


More than three decades ago—before the Arctic became a much talked about, much analyzed, and much sought after region on this planet—Eben Hopson, an Iñupiat leader from Alaska’s North Slope, observed: “The United States has no Arctic policy, as such.”

Hopson was years ahead of his time, sensing that change in the Arctic would affect his own Iñupiat people as well as the world.

Today the formulation of Arctic policy has become a mini industry. Conferences and meetings draw participants from universities, think tanks, industry, Arctic countries, and other nations that are interested in benefiting from the opening of the region.

But in the mid-1970s, before the world became aware of how climate change affected the Arctic and how it would open new sea routes and areas for resource development, Hopson, the North Slope Borough’s first mayor, had an inkling of what lay ahead. He reacted to the changes within his own municipality wrought by the Prudhoe Bay oil development after he heard people in the villages near the oil fields speak about changing caribou migration patterns. And he knew the federal government wanted to sell oil and gas leases in the Beaufort Sea in 1979.

As early as 1976, in testimony to the Canadian Berger Commission that was examining the effects of oil and gas development in the Mackenzie Delta, Hopson spoke of the need for an Arctic policy. He acknowledged the inevitability of both onshore and offshore development but also noted, “We feel that the special problems of the Arctic necessitate the development of an international set of Arctic policies.”

In 1976 Hopson called upon the Inuit leaders of Greenland, Canada, the United States, and what was then the USSR to create an organization to represent their concerns and the point of view of the Arctic’s indigenous people. He wanted the group to lead in the creation of policies that allowed development of the region’s mineral and energy potential in a manner that also ensured the protection of subsistence resources.

The North Slope Borough hosted the first-ever Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Barrow in June 1977; the event was only marred by the absence of Russian Inuit barred from attending because of Cold War politics. By 1980, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference had evolved into the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). Today the ICC represents the 155,000 Inuit and Yup’ik of Chukotka (Russia), Greenland, Alaska, and Canada, with offices in each country.

The leaders of the circumpolar Arctic regions realized the need for an Arctic policy long before such a policy became institutionalized. The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), the predecessor of the Arctic Council, was formed in 1991, when eight Arctic nations—Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, the USSR, Sweden, Finland, and the United States—finally saw the need to address environmental concerns. By 1996 the AEPS had evolved into the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council is now a much larger group and is actively working to define Arctic policy. Today it comprises the original AEPS member Arctic countries, six permanent participants from indigenous communities, and permanent observers that now number ten, with the recent addition of China, India, Italy, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan.

Increasing industrial development in the Arctic was the initial impetus behind the creation of the ICC. But within a few years another issue—climate change and its far-reaching impacts—also began to draw attention.

While scientists had sounded the alarm about greenhouse gases and climate warming as early as the 1960s, the topic didn’t gain traction until temperatures rose sharply in the 1980s.


Watching Changes Occur

The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration Arctic Report Card for 2012 noted that global warming is taking a toll on the Arctic, and the momentum of change is accelerating due to impacts of a persistent warming trend that started thirty years ago. The report noted that “sea ice extent in September 2012 reached the lowest observed in the satellite record (1979-present), with a related continued decline in the extent of thick multi-year ice.”

While Arctic residents are apprehensive about how the accelerating loss of sea ice is affecting their way of life, others see only economic opportunity in the melting ice that has rapidly transformed the previously closed Arctic Ocean into a seasonally open ocean. Those opportunities include fishing, oil and gas exploration and production, port development and marine logistics, and shortened routes for shipping goods between ports in United States, Asia, and Europe.

Not surprisingly, those who want to reap the perceived benefits from the Arctic also want to participate in the development of an Arctic policy. These include the indigenous people of the region, local corporations (in Alaska, the regional and village Native corporations), Arctic nations, and other nations such as Japan, Korea, China, and India.

In 2012 the Alaska State Legislature formed the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission to address the risks and the opportunities that arise from increased activity.

In the opinions of some, such as James Stotts, president of ICC Alaska, the state’s role or influence over Arctic policy is minimal and a bit late.

Stotts, an Iñupiat, born and raised in Barrow, understands the coming challenges. He has been involved with the ICC since 1980 and has served as its chairman. He now speaks from a position of authority because the ICC is one of the six Arctic indigenous permanent participants on the Arctic Council. Alaska is not. It can only provide input to the US federal representative to the Council.

The state can formulate a policy, Stotts says, but “it’s the federal policy that is important because so much of what is happening in the Arctic will be in the oceans where the state has no jurisdiction beyond its three-mile limit.”

In Stotts’ view there is no question that the policy for the Arctic should be shaped in cooperation with other Arctic states. He notes rightly that the Arctic Ocean is surrounded by land and what happens one place affects other places that surround that ocean. “Setting policy is clearly national and international game and the state’s role is more of feeding ideas to federal and international bodies,” he says.

Charlotte Brower, the Mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, wants to see the people of the Arctic more directly involved in the discussions. “There should be a permanent seat at the table for us as this policy is being made,” she says.

In regards to the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, Brower emphasizes that it was formed without consultation from the local governments. She points out that the Commission’s only member from the North Slope, former North Slope Borough Mayor Jacob Adams, is just an alternate. “But I know that an alternate is not engaged in every meeting. I also know that Jacob Adams’s wisdom and his knowledge of Arctic policy is greater than anyone else seated on the state’s Arctic Policy Commission.”

In its 2011 session the Alaska Legislature failed to extend the state’s coastal management plan, making Alaska the only coastal state in the country without such a plan. A citizens’ initiative that put the issue to Alaska’s voters in the 2012 elections also failed.

By failing to extend the coastal management program, the state lost a chance to influence federal policy in offshore waters beyond the state’s three-mile territorial limit, particularly in light of the coming development activity in the offshore Arctic.

Rep. Ben Nageak of Barrow, a former mayor of the North Slope Borough whose House district 40 spans northern Alaska, is also concerned about the state’s inability to effectively influence federal policy. “Today, without a state coastal management plan, all local coastal policies are moot,” he says.

“The coast is changing rapidly and we need to manage its changes, we need an instrument to work with federal and state governments and with industry.

“The effects of climate change reach far beyond the melting of sea ice. We have to fight coastal erosion, and encroachment of ocean water into the tundra, lakes, and ponds,” he says.

However, Nageak is well aware that changes in the Arctic will also create opportunities for its people. The opening of the Northern Sea Route could lead to development of ports, and that in turn would help decrease the cost of living in the Arctic through goods arriving directly to coastal communities.

Local input is of utmost importance for Brower also, who spoke of her frustration about the lack of federal and state cooperation.

“We will create our own Arctic Policy Commission. We do not want people who do not live in our region, who do not know what is impacting us on a daily basis, to make decisions on our behalf,” she says.


Who is Most Affected

Three northern Alaska regional corporations and several village corporations own land along the coast that could be affected by changes in the Arctic. Some of the corporations own lands or are negotiating for transfer of lands that could serve as potential ports for support of Arctic maritime activities.

Teresa Imm, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation’s vice president for Resource Development, acknowledged that ASRC is considering the development of an Arctic port at Cape Thompson to export the corporation’s coal near Point Lay.

Another corporation looking at port development is Bering Straits Native Corporation at Port Clarence on the Seward Peninsula, which is also one of the sites selected by the US Army Corps of Engineers as a potential deep-water port.

Bering Strait Native Corporation’s vice president of natural resources Matt Ganley says it is expected that 30 percent of China’s exports will travel through the Northern Sea Route by 2030. So far this year, the Russian Northern Sea Route Administration has permitted 213 shipping trips, up from 46 in 2012, 34 in 2011, and 4 in 2010.

According to Liz Qulluq Moore, senior director for community and government affairs, NANA is also looking at a port. “We are very focused on developing Cape Blossom, near Kotzebue, as a regional port,” Moore says. Its location between the Bering Straits and North Slope makes Cape Blossom an ideal location as an alternative facility or another facility for the Coast Guard or other Arctic marine transportation, she says.

If there is one message that comes across clearly from the local and corporate leaders of the Arctic, it is this: Arctic policy cannot be formulated without the active participation of the people who have lived there for thousands of years. That development must include safeguards for the protection of subsistence species and a way of life and culture that has survived through many changes.

“I hope that through all changes that are coming our way, our life and culture survives. We have survived industrial development, climate change, and all else that is occurring by adapting and we will continue,” Stotts says.

Shehla Anjum writes from Anchorage.

This first appeared in the September 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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