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Arctic commission readies report for Legislature

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

How does the state of Alaska design policy that will both encourage opportunity and protect that which already exists in the ever-changing and expanding Arctic? That was the none-too-small question on the table for a group of Alaska lawmakers, industry leaders and stakeholders over the last year.

The Alaska Arctic Policy Commission was tasked with leading the Alaska Legislature forward with its Arctic policy and is now finishing up a preliminary report, which is due to lawmakers by the end of January. But wrapping all the elements of the Arctic -- including a vast number of unknowns -- is none too easy, as the 26 commissioners were finding when they met this week in Anchorage to work in their final edits and revisions to a draft document.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell cut right to the chase with his opening comments on the document, calling for stronger verbiage to depict more accurately the potential future of the Arctic and how that relates to Alaskans.

“The amazing thing about this and the amazing thing about the time we live in right now is that we are seeing a brand new ocean, we’re seeing possibilities -- we could know by this time next year if Shell is allowed to drill this summer that we have a major potential offshore development that could have dramatic impacts on finding money for infrastructure,” Treadwell said. “We need to help educate our own citizens and the nation that we see something giant happening here that deserves more than a bureaucratic response.”

Co-chair Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, reminded the council that the goal of the report was to lead Alaska’s lawmakers forward and help remind them to consider the bigger picture of the state as a whole as they set policy.

“We need to educate the Legislature on where they need to get their Arctic footing,” Herron said. “The target has to be telling all 50 legislators and future legislators why they need to think about the Arctic.”

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, took a similar stance when asking for a flavor of greater importance be added to the report, noting that some have compared the current situation in the Arctic, with marine transportation increasing exponentially each year and offshore oil and gas exploration moving forward, to that of the ice age.

“We are watching some of the most momentous events for Alaska in the last 500 years,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for the state of Alaska, for international cooperation and for a whole range of other things.”

Commissioners also took advantage of their 11th hour crack at the draft document to ask staff to emphasize elements they felt were missing from the report, like the importance of the U.S. Coast Guard in all areas of Arctic operations, the need for more defined rules of the sea for itinerant vessels and the issue of food security.

Elizabeth Moore, NANA Regional Corp. community and government affairs manager, noted that subsistence is not included in the current draft of the document.

“It’s an important issue that maybe we can explore in the next year,” she said. “Food security is one way we talk about the importance of our natural resources to the indigenous communities but also to the rest of Alaska. There is the culture role it plays, the important role it plays in passing on our cultures, and it is critical to the survival of our communities. So at some point I think we do have to include it in our document.”

Treadwell said the marine safety section of the draft was lacking in details.

“I read the oil spill chapter and the marine safety chapter as I would if I were a reporter reading it after a major spill, and I don’t think we’ve addressed the kinds of things we would like to tell ourselves we should have addressed if something like that happened,” he said.

He called for more specific recommendations about working with other countries such as Russia on vessel tracking systems and getting itinerant vessels into a spill contingency planning regime.

“We talk about working with the Russians on a vessel tracking system and protocols,” he said. “Well, let’s say what those protocols are -- avoid hitting hunters, avoid disturbing wildlife and avoid spilling oil and perhaps engage with our communities beforehand.”

Nikoosh Carlo, who was hired as the commission’s director fairly late in the process of creating the recommendations report last October, said the important thing to keep in mind is that the current document is a work in progress, saying the report will be prefaced by some explanation of its preliminary nature.

Co-chair Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, seconded that sentiment.

“We are looking for a draft that accurately reflects our work to date,” she said. “It’s not perfect, it’s the possible.”

The commission, which was formed by the Legislature in the spring of 2012, has met numerous times at locations throughout the state this year. It will next be tasked with starting work on an implementation plan for its recommendations.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.