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A conflict between Alaska and Feds over Arctic policy?

  • Author: Jim Paulin
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published September 8, 2013

tA top state legislator last week tried to avoid a fight with the federal government by seeking a closed-door meeting with an official of the Obama administration in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. Two different Arctic commissions met last week in the Aleutians, and there was friction between the state and federal panels.

The United States Arctic Research Commission is made up of eight commissioners tasked with helping the federal government develop its Arctic research plan and figure out how the newly created national Arctic strategy will be implemented. The Alaska Arctic Policy Commission also convened in Unalaska, with its 26 commissioners working to guide Alaska's Arctic policy. When members of the federal and state commissions met, however, there was tension. The state commission sent a letter to the federal commission earlier this summer asking that it play a leading role in developing the federal Implementation Plan for the Arctic Region and noting that more collaboration is needed.

Alaska Arctic Policy Commission co-chair Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, wanted to avoid public discomfort. She suggested meeting with an Obama administration official, in a closed-door executive session. Otherwise, she said, "a lot of face saving has to come later." And the other co-chair, Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, asked if the state panel could review unpublished drafts of the federal research commission's report.

Both state legislators directed those concerns to the federal representative speaking to the state panel, Brendan Kelly of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Kelly was speaking on behalf of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, which had pledged to hold all its meetings in public.

Kelly ducked the controversy that might have resulted from the expulsion of the public and news media. Instead, he offered to meet this week by teleconference with the two co-chairs to try to work things out.

Kelly said that while the state and federal panels have some differences, they have a lot more in common regarding concerns for the region's future.

'From fuzzy stuff to real stuff'

Some of those differences were pointed out by state Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, who complained of continued federal opposition to oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, and actions against placer gold miners by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said the policy commission's work will get difficult as it "moves from fuzzy stuff to real stuff." He said he was pleased that Kelly is a longtime Alaskan. Kelly said he's lived in the state for 35 years, as a science researcher at state universities in Fairbanks and Juneau.

Throughout the two meetings, local presenters remarked that it seemed odd to even consider the Aleutians as part of the Arctic.

Kelly said the Aleutians are included in the federal law that created the research commission, the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984. While the Aleutians are south of the Arctic Circle, Kelly said there's more than one definition, noting that the island chain is beyond the tree line, with its tundra-covered terrain.

"It doesn't seem like the Arctic," Ounalashka Corp. CEO Rick Miller told the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, meeting in the Grand Aleutian Hotel.

Why not, he was asked later.

The Arctic is "cold!" said Miller, who was born in Nome and later lived above the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue.

Increased Arctic activity

The week started with U.S. Arctic Research Commission meetings, which heard many of the same concerns, including increased shipping in the Aleutians due to the Northern Sea Route and offshore oil exploration.

The research commission's job is to identify where to spend federal research dollars, and three commercial fishing advocates worried that could mean money taken away from fisheries surveys that help set catch limits.

The state commission, by contrast, is tasked with developing a policy, and Herron said it faces a tight deadline.

Unalaska city natural resources analyst Frank Kelty, and Unisea fish processing executive Tom Enlow both feared that federal fisheries research could lose out to trendier subjects like studies of the Bering Sea canyons. At-Sea Processors Association executive director Stephanie Madsen, representing pollock factory trawlers, similarly warned of "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Much discussion focused on increased development in the sparsely populated region, a fact highlighted during the state meeting by noise from heavy equipment repaving the parking lot of the hotel owned by Unisea.

The Coast Guard reported an increased presence in the Arctic, with the Kotzebue airport serving as a base for aerial patrols of the Arctic Ocean and Bering Strait. More cutters are patroling the northern waters, too. New Homeland Security Cutters were described as ideally suited for the Arctic because of their ability to spend long periods at sea.

Herron introduced the Arctic Policy Commission's new executive director, Nikoosh Carlo, originally from Tanana, near Fairbanks. Carlo, 34, said she previously worked in the polar studies department of the National Science Foundation and holds a science doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

State Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, complained of a lack of interest in Arctic issues in the Lower 48.

"We need to start acting like an Arctic nation," he said. "China is acting more like an Arctic nation than the United States."

China does not border the Arctic, but nonetheless operates an ice breaker in the Arctic Ocean and in May was granted observer status to the Arctic Council, along with five other non-Arctic states.

The state panel heard reports of regional developments. State Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said he's pleased that fish processing is likely to return to Adak, and "help put Adak back on the map" following Icicle Seafood's closure of its cod plant earlier this year.

Edgmon said he toured Adak and was astonished by the amount of former military property "wasting away" at the former Naval Air Station.

The former Cold War outpost was turned over to The Aleut Corporation, and Janet Riser of the regional Native corporation told the policy commission of plans to build a 1,200-foot dock in Adak, more than twice as long as the existing piers left behind by the Navy. The new dock would be located across Sweeper Cove, opposite the old ones, she said.

James Gamble, of the Aleut International Association, gave an update on the group that represents Aleuts from the U.S. and Russia at the United Nations. Vincent Tutiakoff of the Ounalashka Corporation said he plans to get more involved with the international organization.

The state commission's next meeting will be Oct. 23 in Fairbanks while the Alaska Federation of Natives is conducting its annual convention.

Correction: This article originally reported that Vincent Tutiakoff was a representative of the Qawalangin Tribe. He is actually affiliated with the Ounalashka Corporation. We regret the error.

Jim Paulin is a reporter for The Bristol Bay Times, where this report was first published. Used with permission.

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