Alaska's legislators have a pretty big job to do this session, with everything imaginable on the table and lots of pressure to make big decisions that will impact Alaska for years to come. There are some huge opportunities in front of this state right now that may be overlooked if our elected officials are nearsighted in their actions and advocacy, however.
Arguably the biggest of those is the looming conundrum of how to catch up with other Arctic nations on issues of development, infrastructure, and preparation for the changing face of our planet. Alaska and the United States are woefully behind other governments in planning and focus on the Arctic, and a report released recently by the Northern Waters Task Force illustrates that perfectly while laying out a roadmap for playing this game of catch-up effectively.
The report, which was released around the end of January, outlines the issues at hand. The sea ice is melting and a race to develop the natural resources and take advantage of new shipping routes in the Arctic is on. Alaska could benefit financially if it got a horse in this race. So far, many would argue we are still in the stables.
The task force, which was established in 2010, was challenged to consider the opportunities and obstacles created by the changing face of the Arctic. It came up with a series of recommendations ranging from encouraging the development of natural resources in the region, to pushing for more involvement in Arctic policy on a national and international level. Among the highest priorities identified in the report was the creation of a commission to develop a comprehensive state strategy for the Arctic.
"As the Arctic changes, the decisions Alaska faces will continue to evolve and grow in complexity," the report states. "An Alaskan Arctic Commission will enable Alaska to more effectively respond to unfolding developments and will jumpstart Alaska's preparations to ensure that the interests of the state and its people are protected."
While creating another commission or committee may seem like a step backwards to some, this is an area where we need guidance. The complexity of the situation in the Arctic, considering the science involved, as well as the many nations who are actively developing resources and planning future strategies demands an entity to advise the U.S. and Alaska on how to respond.
Another recommendation of the report was that the United States act quickly to join the other 160 nations who have already ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Why this has not already occurred is hard to fathom, given that the action "will enable the U.S. to legitimize its claims to resources in areas of the Continental Shelf that extend beyond the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone." The Arctic is a bit of a no-man's-land right now, which countries taking rouge actions like dropping flags into the water to signify ownership. It makes no sense not to have a seat at the table of one of the main organizational forums dealing with Arctic property rights.
The committee also recommends that the state of Alaska support greater international cooperation through the Arctic Council, which it describes as the world's predominant intergovernmental forum for Arctic governance.
There are a host of other recommendations from this task force, ranging from how to proceed with oil and gas development as well as fisheries and marine transportation issues. It calls for additional Polar Class icebreakers for the U.S. fleet, an anthem that seems to have finally been heard with the recent federal budget recommendation of $8 million for the design such a vessel. But even that still puts us way behind the curve as a nation.
Alaskans should be questioning at this point what has lead to this situation where our elected officials at a state and federal level are so far behind the curve on a global scale when it comes to paying attention to the Arctic. Is it apathy based on an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation? Is it a deliberate move not to play in the sandbox with other nations as has been the U.S. policy on several critical occasions? Whatever the strategy employed by our state and country on this issue, we should demand a bit of clarity, and a lot of action in the right direction to correct this list.
The task force's findings are very clear. The Arctic will play a huge role in future activity worldwide, and our role in that is being determined by the actions taken today. Even if we start right now putting Arctic policy at the top of the to-do list, we will still be paying catch-up for a long time, and the result may be rushed and ill-thought-out actions and policies that minimize our ability to participate in what should be an incredible opportunity on many fronts for the United States.
Let's hope the recommendations of this task force are received with due attention, and the Alaska Legislature takes the time to focus its gaze northward long enough to advocate for what needs to happen in this state and country. It will be effort and attention well-spent.
Carey Restino is news editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared. It is republished here with permission.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.