In Anchorage, U.S. holds first meeting as chair of Arctic Council

The only international forum devoted exclusively to the Arctic met in Anchorage this week to discuss everything from research drones to ocean acidification.

The meeting was the council's first under the current U.S. chairmanship and brought together representatives from eight Arctic nations as well as indigenous communities and observers with interests in the region.

"We're still in the early stages," U.S. Ambassador David Balton said. "Very little concrete was done." More meetings are scheduled for Alaska and Maine in the next two years.

Still, the council approved a report on drone operation and safety in the Arctic and made the decision to travel to the climate change negotiations in Paris. There were discussions on climate change adaptation, suicide among the Arctic's indigenous peoples, biodiversity, oil spill prevention and response, and black carbon and methane, which accelerate climate change.

There was also a four-hour opportunity for the more than 30 accredited observers of the council to speak up and share their views.

Observers are a diverse group and include non-Arctic nations such as China and the United Kingdom; international institutions such as the United Nations Development Program; and nonprofits such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Association of World Reindeer Herders. Some are focused on resource development and shipping routes. Others are interested in defending their interests as longtime inhabitants of the region. Others want to make sure the Arctic environment is protected as melting sea ice opens the region to industry. Still others are interested in all of the above and more.

Observers aren't allowed into the closed-door meetings between Arctic Council members and permanent participants. There are 16 applications for observer status pending.


"They don't all want the same thing," Balton said during a press briefing Friday in Anchorage. "Most of them seem to want more engagement and to play a bigger role."

On the domestic side, the state of Alaska, for one, would also like stronger representation for itself, indigenous groups and other subnational entities, said Katie Marquette, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Walker.

She said Craig Fleener, the governor's special assistant for Arctic policy, and state Department of Natural Resources commissioner Mark Myers attended as a part of the U.S. delegation. Alaska does not have observer status on the council.

"Neither of them had a speaking role, however they were able to contribute the state's perspectives on certain issues, and are hoping to have the opportunity to speak before the council in the future," Marquette wrote in an email. "They were also able to have many side conversations with participants that were beneficial to the state."

How to handle the increased interest in the Arctic Council's activities at the observer level is one of the responsibilities falling to Balton and the chairmanship team during the United States period of leadership from 2015 to 2017. Raising awareness of the region's importance to U.S. interests is another.

"On top of everything else, we're trying to make more Americans aware of the Arctic and the interests of our nation in the Arctic," Balton said. "We're doing lots of outreach activities to help spread the word and will be doing more in the coming months."

The U.S. delegation also has a broader set of goals for its chairmanship: improve Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; improve economic and living conditions for people in the Arctic; and address climate change impact in the region.

Jeannette Lee Falsey

Jeannette Lee Falsey is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. She left the ADN in 2017.