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Commission tackles questions about Alaska's role in changing Arctic

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

Alaska's Arctic Policy commissioners were advised to pay attention not only to the happenings in their state's Arctic waters but around the world as they convened in Anchorage last week to work through the commission's recommendations to the state and the nation.

The Arctic Policy Commission continued work on a final report due to the Alaska State Legislature in January, considering policy recommendations on everything from how to build infrastructure in the Arctic to environmental concerns.

At the beginning of the two-day meeting, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell advised the commission to read through Russian President Vladimir Putin's comments in a recent speech he gave on the country's Arctic policy.

Treadwell said Putin talks about the need to develop a northern sea route so that by 2015 the cargo tonnage will top 4 million tons a year.

"He's looking to triple it," Treadwell said, noting that the Russian leader also expressed the desire to make sure the environment was conducive to shipping companies choosing to operate under the flag of Russia. "It's prompted some concerns given everything else that is going on."

Treadwell also brought to the commission's attention the fact that several of the nearby Canadian territories have acquired the rights to develop their lands through their home rule status.

Treadwell said he is watching several bills moving through the federal government that allow states to manage federal lands by transferring the development rights to the state's hands. Such action -- also called devolution -- would improve Alaska's competitiveness as it vies for development opportunities to offer investors.

"I know that we're not poised for a major fight over land ownership with the federal government, but given that it's the single largest thing that's happening within the Arctic neighborhood, I urge us to address this devolution issue in our next report," he said.

Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, noted that two studies were released in early May talking about emerging research issues in the Arctic as well as what is known about responding to oil spills in icy waters.

"I think they are both very relevant to this commission as we think of the long-term implications," she said.

Ulmer said she also was inspired by the efforts of Finland, which she recently visited, to become self-proclaimed experts in Arctic development, such as icebreakers. Ulmer said 60 percent of all the icebreakers in operation today were built in Finland, including a new icebreaker class designed in Finland and being built in China.

"It was quite impressive what a small country can do," she said. "As Alaska aspires to what role it can play, there are examples ... of countries doing amazing things, as well as potential partners for us."

Ulmer reported that movement may soon happen on a federal level on the issue of icebreakers for the Coast Guard -- the United States has a skeleton crew of icebreakers in its fleet, and Alaska has long advocated for more to help patrol the Arctic waters, which are seeing more traffic each year.

This meeting's work was largely on refining the preliminary report released last winter. The public comment period on the preliminary report, which can be seen from the commission's website at www.akarctic.com, closed Thursday.

In a statement, co-chairs Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, called for Alaskans to speak up about their vision for Alaska's Arctic policy.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said during his time in Juneau this session, he realized many legislators mirror federal lawmakers in their ignorance regarding Arctic issues.

"I'm not sure Alaska understands the issues of the Arctic any more than the rest of the nation," Stevens said. "There's a lot of interest but not a lot of knowledge."

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said by the end of the session, he felt the members of the commission who are state lawmakers had done a great deal to raise awareness through the bills it sponsored. Others commented on the need to educate Alaskans and lawmakers about the lack of infrastructure in the Arctic, from ports to broadband access.

Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow, a new member to the commission, told the commission he has seen firsthand the needs of the region being accelerated by the changing climate. He pointed to the changes in the ice and the dangers that presented to local whalers as a real-time example of those needs playing out.

"The ice was much thinner and the ice was less safe, and just last week the ice broke off ... and just a football field away is where people are whaling," he said. "That's the first time I remember that whalers have gone straight to aluminum boats."

Nageak said hunters have nowhere to go if there is a storm -- the ice floes that used to provide protection are gone.

"We need a place to have ships dock, and we need more planning for rescue," he said. "Last year there were 90-some ships off Barrow --all different kinds of crafts. What's going to happen if there's a big event happening to a ship? Nothing's going to happen because we're not prepared. I hope this commission comes up with some things to do in the short term and then plan for the long term."

The commission meets again in Kotzebue on Aug. 26 and in Nome on Aug. 27. Another Anchorage meeting will be held in mid-November. All meetings are broadcast live at akl.tv. Listening sessions will be held in September and October in communities across the state, the commission said.

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

 


By CAREY RESTINO
The Arctic Sounder