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Northern Alaska leaders speak of fast pace of change in Arctic

Carey Restino | Arctic Sounder
At a recent Arctic Policy meeting, residents of Alaska's North Slope Borough shared how their communities have gone through immense changes over the past several decades. Loren Holmes photo

Editor's note: This is the second of two stories following the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission meeting in Barrow in mid-June. The commission was created to develop Alaska's Arctic Policy as well as review the many issues that face the quickly changing northern region of the state.

When he first moved to Barrow in 1938, Wesley Aiken was 12. Last month, he sat in the modern chambers of the North Slope Borough and told the 26 commissioners of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission about his perspective.

When he first got to Barrow, most people depended on seals to survive all winter, he said. They would wait by a breathing hole to catch one, but sometimes it would take days. Once the snow came, there was no driftwood to gather.

"You could hardly find anything to heat up a house or cook a meal," the elder recalled. "When someone did catch a seal, it would last a couple hours and then everything would be gone. People would come in and take a little piece of meat and blubber. I've seen this when I was young."

As he grew, he learned to hunt, and to put away food in the summer to last through the winter. That's how he and others around him survived. When the ice went north, walrus would arrive, and there was whaling, and things to harvest from the land.

"Those are the things we are counting on for a living," he said. "We never had a job in those days, it was just those things that we have."

Today, things have changed, he said. But in a way, they have not. The subsistence food is still essential to the survival of Native people in the Arctic, he said. This spring's whaling season, which was delayed by unprecedented ice off the shores of Barrow, kept whalers from harvesting any whales until last week.

"I'm glad we have a little money, but we still hunt those things to get by, so I hope it will be better this fall whaling when it starts in October," Aiken said. "People always need something from the ocean."

Aiken's comments led off several hours of testimony from Native leaders in the Arctic, who spoke about how frustrating it is to have policy created around them without so much as a consultation with locals knowledgeable about the issues at hand.

Charlotte Brower, North Slope Borough mayor, said few societies have been forced to adjust to change at the speed Arctic communities have had to.

"In the past 40 years, our people have endured a great deal of change," she said. "We have gone from sod houses that used oil lamps to modern homes that burn natural gas. We have gone from collecting ice to melt for drinking water to building and maintaining our own water plant."

While technology and advances have been adopted by the communities, the people who live in those communities still recognize that their continued success depends on the safe development of resources in the area, she said. With all the indications that the world is coming to the Arctic in droves, the mayor expressed concern that the voices of the people who live here be heard.

Benny Nageak, the area's state representative, told the council that outside interests, such as non-governmental environmental organizations, say they are working in the best interest of the environment, but take risks that put the environment and those working on drill rigs in the Arctic at risk. When his son was working for Shell last summer, the legislator said he was very anxious knowing an environmental activist ship was in the area.

Delbert Rexford, vice president of the Ukpiagvik Inupiat Corp., said the increases in ship traffic and other impacts that may be coming as a result of increased interest in Arctic waters worry the corporation. What happens when fisheries in nearby waters that are currently under a moratorium get opened up? What will that do to subsistence fishing? What about invasive species from ships traveling through the Bering Straits?

"Thirty years ago when I fell in the Arctic Ocean, it was ice cold," Rexford said. "Now you can fall in the water and not hardly feel a chill at times."

Edward Itta, the former North Slope Borough mayor who spoke to the commission through his role as a member of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, spoke about the importance of food security, developing baseline data using science and research, and the need for responsible resource development. He encouraged the commission to consider the need for infrastructure both to be prepared to take advantage of development as it comes to the Arctic, and also to prepare for possible disasters, like an oil spill.

"We are the most impacted," Itta said. "We are ground zero. We recognize that our animals all the way down to Bristol Bay, while there are boundaries, we share the same ocean. We share the same animals. They have a right to be concerned, too."

Itta pointed to the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission as a living example of a co-management program between the federal government and local users.

"That is a true partnerships," Itta said, noting that while there are plenty of challenges, the organization is a model of successful management of a resource that includes local involvement and has credibility not only statewide but nationally and even internationally. Since much of the resource development in question will occur in federal waters, such partnerships may be necessary.

In contrast, when the federal entities classified the polar bear as endangered, 180,000 square miles of coastline was essentially classified as critical habitat without any input from the communities the classification was impacting.

Itta and several other speakers noted that they don't understand why the federal government would choose to take the risk of allowing offshore drilling in the Arctic before drilling in the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"It befuddles me why ANWR ... is not being looked at first before we go out and have all this controversy about offshore drilling."

Itta said conversations like those that occurred through the commission's meetings were crucial to Alaska and the Arctic communities keeping up with the pace of change.

"Even for us, this is a new frontier," Itta said. "Something like this has never happened before. We are all learning as we go. The key to that is doing exactly what you are doing here."

Itta said he hopes as these conversations progress, all the pertinent entities in the state will gather to have an important conversation.

"We need to have a constructive discussion on what it is Alaska wants to do," he said. "That is the way we need to grow as we go about our business. Of course we have our differences but we can't stop talking to each other."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder.