North Slope mayor fights for local voice

Rena Delbridge

In the ongoing tug-of-war over Arctic issues, industry has often viewed North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta as the enemy.

Itta has spoken loudly about his personal opposition to offshore oil and gas development, lodging for the record his worries about the impact on bowhead whales, a species central to the core of Native subsistence on the Slope.

While Itta doesn't deny his personal opposition, he professes to be a realist. As mayor, he sees cooperation and negotiation with industry as the linchpin to having a local say in development and believes such communication early on can avoid costly lawsuits that hurt not only industry, but also the communities' chances at economic development.

Native communities on the Slope are in a tough spot. Well-funded outside interests want a piece of the Arctic's wealth -- whether industry looking for oil, the state seeking revenue, the Coast Guard eyeing new turf, or environmentalists eager to protect polar bears.

"All I've ever wanted to do and all I intend to do is to do everything I can to continue to maintain our way of life up there and coexist with all of these issues and impacts, with industry or with maritime folks or with the Coast Guard or with the federal government -- but I don't see the state in this anywhere," Itta said. "And that is so disappointing."

Locals want life as they know it to continue -- and to know their children's children will be able to celebrate the same deep, spiritual ties to the land their grandparents enjoyed.

But they also want to encourage some development, with protections, to encourage an economy and jobs. Itta believes changes to the coastal zone management program may provide that.

"I believe in my heart of hearts that this is a process that will benefit not only us on the North Slope, but it's good for the state of Alaska," he said. "It's good for industry. It brings the major players to the table, to participate in a meaningful way -- early on."

Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, explained it this way: He sees not one, but two futures for the North Slope's Native communities. One future is the consistency and security of cultural ties to the land, nurtured over centuries. He knows where he will be buried -- in land he grew up on, where his ancestors lived, where his children and grandchildren always have a home.

The second future is economic strength in communities that struggle balancing a rural subsistence lifestyle with the new cash economy. Resource and other development can fuel money and jobs to local towns, giving hope for a better future.

But only if that development comes on locals' terms. Itta and others have been fighting for that local voice, and are willing to take it to great lengths. Industry fears that could mean lawsuits, a possibility Itta acknowledged.

"I don't believe we should leave it to the courts, but I will say what I have said (before)," Itta said. "If we know that my people's ocean, air, land are being poisoned, of course I'm going to file a lawsuit. If things are happening that kill or hurt the animals, of course I'm going to file a lawsuit. If the health, the physical health of my people is threatened, and I do not have any recourse, I will go that route.

"I have never thrown that option out -- but I want it very clear it is only as a last resort," he emphasized. "Dialogue ... is the way to go than just filing lawsuits to stop everything."

Contact Rena Delbridge at rena(at)