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61°North

Q&A with Fran Ulmer

  • Author: Sarah Gonzales
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published December 21, 2015

A familiar name to many Alaskans, Fran Ulmer has been advising policymakers and making policy in our state and nationally for years. In her various roles as a former lieutenant governor of Alaska under Tony Knowles; Juneau's mayor; chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage; and as a public policy professor there, she has dedicated her professional life to educating both the public and lawmakers about Alaska.

She was appointed to her current position as the chair of the United States Arctic Research Commission (USARC) by President Barack Obama in 2011, and she will continue to serve in the role until 2019. The purpose of the commission is to create reports and make recommendations to our nation's lawmakers concerning both the domestic and international Arctic. Ulmer travels regularly to the Arctic to learn more about the people and the land.

With her years of policymaking and her focus on higher education in Alaska, we wanted to know her personal take on the Arctic, so we asked. Somewhere between the Arctic Circle in Iceland and traveling back home to Anchorage, she found time to answer our questions by email.

When did you first visit the Arctic?

My first trip to the Arctic was to Greenland and Iceland (plus Newfoundland and Labrador) on a USO tour when I was in college. It was a very exotic landscape with huge, open, treeless spaces with mountains and glaciers, all of which inspired a sense of awe.

My first trip to Alaska's Arctic was the summer of 1973, my first summer in Alaska. I was working for the Legislature and Representative Helen Beirne held hearings about health care delivery in Kotzebue. She arranged for me to go along as staff and we flew to Kivalina, Noatak, Kiana.

What did you find surprising about the Arctic?

One phone and only one phone in each village; honey buckets and lack of appropriate community facilities; no high schools in most villages; seeing caribou at the end of the runway.

What are some of your memorable experiences off the grid in the Arctic?

  • Meeting the brown bears of McNeil River and Katmai National Park.
  • Enjoying the Chena Hot Springs pool in the middle of winter, with the northern lights dancing overhead.
  • Kayaking in Glacier Bay, watching glaciers calve and riding the waves.
  • Winning the Kuskokwim 300 Rookie sled dog race in Bethel.
  • Riding a snow machine out to Mayor George Ahmaogak’s whaling camp at his invitation to see the whaling crew preparing and waiting for the bowhead whales. And then being part of the community effort to pull on the ropes to bring the whale up on the ice. An extraordinary honor to be part of the rich cultural traditions in Barrow.
  • What is one misconception commonly held about the Arctic that you can dispel for our readers?

    The Arctic is often discussed as though it is all the same. The truth is that there is a lot of variability. Some areas of the Arctic are ice-free in winter, like northern Norway. Other areas, like the Canadian Arctic, are iced over for many months. Some areas have modern infrastructure and others have very little. Although there are certainly similarities, the differences are often ignored.

    Why did you get involved with Arctic policy?

    I have been interested in the intersection of science, law, public policy and politics for a long time. Serving 11 years as a commissioner on the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission was an in-depth science/policy experience and an opportunity to learn how to be a translator between the science community and the policy community and the public. When I taught public policy at UAA, I focused on issues in Alaska and in the Arctic where science and policy meet (fisheries, oil and gas, etc.). So when I was asked to consider serving on the USARC, it was easy to say yes.

    How do you help people in Washington understand Arctic Alaska?

    I show maps and photos, tell stories, make comparisons to places they know, and try to get them curious, wanting to know more about this amazing place.

    What comments and concerns do you most often hear from Alaskans living in the Arctic?

    A wide variety of concerns. Here are a few (not in order of priority):

  • Subsistence and food security (access to the resources; protection of the areas that support the populations of fish and animals and berries; climate change impacts to those resources).
  • Local decision making and control; respecting local and indigenous knowledge.
  • The high cost of energy and other utilities that now require incomes from jobs that are not in abundance in many villages.
  • Climate change impacts to Arctic communities (erosion, flooding, permafrost thawing, less ice to use as a platform for transportation, hunting, ice cellars, etc.).
  • Social/family/community health issues (alcohol abuse, suicide, domestic violence).
  • In your opinion, what does the future of Alaska's Arctic look like and how will it affect Alaskans living in the Arctic?

    Change. There will be changes that will require courage and creativity.

    Continued warming, flooding and erosion will make some villages uninhabitable. Ice-dependent species will be stressed and will change their migration patterns, and some will significantly decline, which will also reduce the availability of subsistence foods.

    However, new technologies may be deployed in ways that make life better and more affordable: renewable energy, redesigned and more efficient homes and water systems; public services could be more cost effective and sustainable. Faster broadband could make it easier to work remotely and live in villages while obtaining income from a wider variety of jobs done virtually.

    Some communities may choose to combine and reach economic critical mass to be more economically viable for new clean industries. Other communities because of location, resources and infrastructure may be able to take advantage of increased accessibility and grow economies related to those opportunities.

    Finally, do you have a favorite film, book, music originating from an artist or writer in the Arctic?

    Band: Pamyua

    Book: Two in the Far North by Margaret Murie

    Learn more about the Arctic at USARC.gov or follow the agency on Twitter (@US_ARC).

    Sarah Gonzales is a writer and producer living in Anchorage, Alaska. Her first trip to the Arctic was to Kotzebue in 2012 where she saw the aurora borealis and ate caribou stew all in one cold evening.

    This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of 61°North. Contact 61° editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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