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Our view: Arctic frontier

Not many years ago, the late Wally Hickel, former Alaska governor and Interior secretary, was writing about an Arctic future that read like speculative fiction. Climate change could give us a new Northwest Passage, changing the economics of world shipping. Easier passage could open the way to more resource development. Rising sea levels might change our coastlines with almost biblical consequences -- but at the same time create opportunities.

Hickel's visions don't look so speculative now. If you want to see them, just look north.

The Arctic is changing. Fast. And the world is hungry for what the Arctic has to offer, from oil and gas reserves to seabed mining to those new shipping routes.

But as recent conferences about the Arctic, from Washington, D.C., to Greenland to Girdwood, have highlighted, the United States and other Arctic nations have a lot of work to do before we're fully prepared to deal with this new day.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich both have been active in trying to win ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty so the United States can join with other nations in driving policies and practices in the Arctic regions, both offshore and onshore. They're on the right track. The current "Experience America" visit to Alaska by some of the world's ambassadors to the United States should expose the issues to those who have direct lines to their governments. That's all to the good, because international cooperation makes a lot more sense than conflict as the Arctic becomes less remote and more traveled.

The United States -- and the Alaska congressional delegation -- should take a lead role in Arctic protection and development. To that end, our leaders have called for a strong, upgraded Coast Guard presence for the Arctic and accelerated, ongoing research about the region's environment across the range of scientific disciplines and commercial endeavors.

And they have rightly spoken for a strong role by local Alaska communities with regard to development that will affect them -- both for the knowledge they can contribute and to mitigate the effects of change.

Changes in the Arctic will be a complex business, a mix of natural and man-made forces and endeavors with the usual problems of unintended consequences.

"Frontier" in the 21st century has some of the same appeal it had in the 19th century. But we know much more about the consequences of heedless development, have learned more about the need to see life whole. Or we should have.

"Frontier" still means the unknown, and that's the case here. We know a lot, enough to know we need to learn a lot more as the Arctic changes and opens. The world is going to work and explore there in more ways than one. We need the wisdom and the means to do it right.

BOTTOM LINE: Alaska and the nation should be front and center in a changing Arctic.