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Alaskans must set the vision for changing Arctic

Alice Rogoff
Melting ice like this has forced hunters in Qaanaaq, Greenland to change centuries-old hunting routes. Photo Lene Kielsen Holm, courtesy ICC-Greenland.
Photo Lene Kielsen Holm, courtesy ICC-Greenland
View of sea ice from Qaanaaq, Greenland. Photo Photo Lene Kielsen Holm, courtesy ICC - Greenland.
Photo Lene Kielsen Holm, courtesy ICC - Greenland
Sled dogs travelling on ice. Photo Levon Sevunts.
Photo Levon Sevunts
Siku - Inuit - Hila hunters Joe Leavitt and Joelie Sanguya talk on sea ice edge near Barrow, Alaska. Photo courtesy Shari Gearheard.
Photo courtesy Shari Gearheard
Barrow whaling crew return to the sea ice edge in the their umiaq (seal skin boat). Photo courtesy Shari Gearheard.
Photo courtesy Shari Gearheard
Sea ice at dusk in Clyde River, Nunavut. Photo Eilís Quinn.
Photo Eilís Quinn

Alaskans have long been aware of the melting Arctic sea ice, but we are only now beginning to comprehend its sweeping and profound implications. The opening and commercialization of this new shipping gateway will likely transform life for western and northern Alaskan coastal residents over the coming decades. Many have an uneasy sense that change may be profound. And Alaskans must work together to take steps to make the most of the transformation, while still protecting our Native cultures and environment.

Policymakers who don't live in Alaska -- the leaders of the federal government, the titans of industry and commerce, and those from other nations – have even less awareness. There are vague pronouncements about the potential benefits of “adaptation to climate change.” But well-planned, onshore development in Alaska to support commerce and shipping won’t unfold spontaneously. It will take careful and inclusive planning, supported by large-scale, infrastructure funding.

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In short, all Alaskans, Outside investors and government entities must become engaged, and they must do so soon. Otherwise, Russian ports, which are already well-positioned for expansion, could become the only ones servicing shipping through the Bering Strait. The ships will be built in Asia and northern Europe; the energy resources will be extracted from Canada; the offshore drilling in the Arctic will be done by Chinese oil and gas companies. How do we know this? Because it’s already starting to happen.

This is why we at Alaska Dispatch Publishing are hosting the first-ever international summit on the subject in Alaska. The Arctic Imperative Summit: Cooperation, Investment, and Responsible Development will run June 19-21 at Alyeska Resort.

Nearly two hundred leaders from around the world will gather to learn about the changing Arctic from the viewpoints of Alaska. They will tackle the region’s crosscutting topics -- from Arctic shipping and navigation to energy and resource development. They will hear from village coastal residents directly and debate the issues with representatives of the international investment community, executives from the shipping and infrastructure sectors, federal and state policymakers, and many other interested parties. Alaska Dispatch has invited scientists, Native leaders, oil drillers, sea captains, politicians, investors and entrepreneurs to attend the gathering in Girdwood. To learn more about the conference, visit Arctic Imperative.com.

The summer of 2009 was the first in memory that both the Northeast Passage (also known as the Northern Sea Route) over Russia and the Northwest Passage over North America were sufficiently free of sea ice to be “navigable” at the same time. This extraordinary boon to sea traffic continued last year and, by all forecasts, is occurring again this summer.

With seven nuclear-powered icebreakers, our Russian neighbors are assertively encouraging marine shipments to and from Asia and Europe and to destinations along its Arctic coast. Ship traffic through the Bering Strait is growing quickly. Yet the U.S. Coast Guard has only one working icebreaker on the water. Alaska has no deepwater port in the Arctic, and only two in the Aleutian Islands more than 800 miles to the south. Villages along the Bering and Chukchi seas are presently defenseless against the dangers that accompany increased shipping: fuel spills, pollution and accidents. The federal government seems unconvinced of the need to act – to designate the location of a Bering Sea deepwater port; to appropriate funds for icebreaker repairs; to have the US become a party to the Law of the Sea Conference; to negotiate bilateral shipping conventions with our Russian neighbors just 50 miles to the west across the Bering Strait.

Other Arctic nations (the seven other members of the Arctic Council include Russia, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland) are well on their way to shaping local  impacts, and protecting their people and local economies.  They are all parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea;  we are the only holdout. 

As with all sea change, the coming Arctic marine development poses real risks and also offers the potential for real benefit. The risks are inevitable, but realizing the benefits takes collective will.

We hope the Arctic Imperative Summit will spark that engagement. The voices of Alaskan interests should be driving the policy agenda in Washington, D.C.

Oil development has dominated the debate in Alaska for the last 30 years. Oil and gas and natural resources will always be the key to this state’s economic viability. But the Arctic coastline is a vast and almost uncharted territory with its own potential to drive economic development.   Melting ice is opening this region to development; the right kind of development will transform lives for future generations of young people. A thriving Alaska seaport or two along the Bering Sea will bring jobs to other coastal villages, and improve their sense of strategic value to the state and the nation.   

Alaskans must lead the conversation on what future we want to unfold. We need to find partners and investors -- and then plan, design and control the development. If we don’t pick up the baton, others will do it for us.

Alaskans have learned the hard way what happens when we don’t define our own needs and take up the baton of local control. The alternative is Outside agendas prevailing and Alaska once again treated as a federal colony. We must not repeat that experience.

Alice Rogoff is the owner and publisher of Alaska Dispatch Publishing, an online news company. Contact her at alice(at)alaskadispatch.com.