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Interview: Lt. Gov. Mallott shares Arctic priorities

  • Author: Shady Oliver
  • Updated: May 17, 2016
  • Published February 28, 2016

The past year saw increased attention paid to the Arctic from the international community and the state. Issues like climate change, an uptick in marine traffic, and infrastructure concerns have driven many of the discussions among stakeholders so far this year. Over the past few weeks, the Sounder has brought you conversations with state and regional leaders outlining their priorities for the Arctic in 2016. This week, we hear from Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.

Q: What are your priorities for the Arctic for 2016?

A: With regards to my responsibilities, the governor has asked me to be the state co-chair of the Denali Commission. The state co-chair is a member of the commission. The federal co-chair is the principal executive officer of the Denali Commission; the commission is a federal agency. But, my priorities are that of the commission, which is to follow up on the president's visit during which he announced that the Denali Commission would be the principal coordinating body for the federal and state response to the relocation of four villages who are now being impacted by the effects of climate change -- either shore erosion, riverbank erosion, rising waters or storm damage.

The Denali Commission is now working with the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which is a coordinating body of federal agencies focusing on climate change and Arctic policy for the federal government. The Denali Commission is working with the Arctic Executive Steering Committee to finalize our funding plan to be responsive to that presidential directive. The Denali Commission will be presenting its budget to the federal government later this month. Our priorities are to provide as much funding to the four affected communities as necessary to allow them to take initiative and have leadership responsibility in determining the future of their communities. We also want the funding capacity in the Denali Commission to provide local match -- that is, funding required of the local area for federal grants and projects that are involved. We also want funding that allows the Denali Commission to be able to either initiate, continue or finish projects that sometimes fail because the last million dollars, or so, is not available from any source to give the Denali Commission the flexibility to help complete projects when no other resources are available.

We also want the Denali Commission to have, through the detailing of expert employees from other agencies or through its own staff, the ability to work with communities and other agencies involved in village relocations or responding to a need in these four villages -- to have that capacity and planning and communication and coordination and be able to reach out to other state, federal and even nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help meet the needs of communities. That's at the federal level. Certainly, the state has a role, principally through the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, through the Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs for emergency response and I will be working with those state institutions in order to help them meet their obligations to these communities.

On a much larger statewide basis, the governor has asked me to be his fisheries policy adviser. As we look to resource management of Alaska's resources in a changing climate -- fisheries, game, flora and fauna -- those are areas that the state of Alaska, through its resource management agencies, is focusing on and I will be working with those agencies as they focus on Arctic issues.

I also am asked frequently to be a speaker at Arctic-related conferences and venues and I engage there on issues or policies or directions that Gov. Walker is focused on or assist the work of agencies of state government that are involved.

Q: With regard to the effects of climate change and the four villages being covered under the Denali Commission, do you think that right now the resources are in place to respond to a disaster should one happen? Are we behind or ahead of the game in that area?

A: We're speaking of the four villages, but I use this as an example: I was in Barrow speaking to the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and I met with the local officials, the mayor and her staff. I drove through the waterfront of the community; there was open ocean just beyond the beach fringe of ice. I was informed that in the past year, a major storm almost overtopped -- came within a foot and a half -- of storm surge flowing into their freshwater lagoon, which is the principal source of freshwater in the community. There is continuing storm erosion along the beachfront of the Barrow community.

I was in Kivalina a month ago with the Alaska National Guard and the State Division of Homeland Security and it is clear the purpose of that visit was to update and work on emergency response plans for the community of Kivalina. When I was in Kivalina in early January, there was open water all along the coast including directly in front of Kivalina.

If there had been a major storm -- and major and severe storms are becoming a feature of Arctic weather in these past several years as the Pacific warms, as the movement of the jet stream happens in patterns that seem to be different from those of the predictable past -- that had overtopped the erosion barrier at Kivalina and flooded parts of the community, the National Guard and other borough and federal and state agencies would have been able to respond to the removal or evacuation of citizens to save life and limb. Very early on, temporary and other evacuee needs would be forthcoming, but probably things would be rough for a little while for those evacuated, particularly if that's the case in winter with open water.

The Corps of Engineers, the state of Alaska, the agencies that have the ability (to respond) do not have the range of funding required in place to begin an effective and immediate response to the need to move these communities and it is something that we are struggling -- and as I said earlier -- making every effort to gain access, particularly to the federal funding required, to both begin to plan and to be able to move essential facilities, and relocate community housing. But, to answer your very specific question, we do not have those resources in place. Not at all.

Q: There's been a lot of discussion on other changes to the Arctic including the opening of Arctic waters to increased marine traffic, the potential for exploring more natural gas options in the Northwest Arctic, the option for exploring more extractive industries. I'm wondering, with these changes at hand, what do you see as some of the most available economic opportunities for the region?

A: Well, certainly (there is a) need for an Arctic port much closer to the Arctic than is Unalaska, which is the principal port closest to the Arctic at this point. The federal government, in particular, can make the resources available to build such a port. It is in our national interest. It is in our defense interest. It is in our economic interest as a nation. So, the development of a port in the Arctic either in Nome, near Kotzebue, or at Port Clarence, is very much needed. Over time, there will be need for additional port facilities.

The Coast Guard certainly has the need to invest in its capacity for safety and meeting search and rescue and regulatory responsibilities in the Arctic. The placement of resources in the Arctic itself and Arctic communities is something that the Coast Guard is looking at now and needs to expand.

The president's budget announced recently included $150 million for the beginning phases of constructing a polar-class icebreaker. All of that and more is needed.

Much more research in the Arctic is needed as change begins to accelerate, because it is accelerating. That research, to the degree that it makes sense and can be expedited and expanded through the use of local knowledge and the placement of Arctic communities to conduct research, should be something that is done in order to meet research needs but also to begin developing a much stronger and synergistic relationship with the people and the communities of the Arctic.

All of these things are needed and some are ongoing. The communities themselves, along with the state of Alaska, as they look at a changing Arctic, will have many issues but also will have many opportunities looking at new energy sources, looking at the development of our resources, the development of infrastructure to access resources.

(Doing that) in a way that has local community support as a critical element is important and, as we continue to grow as a nation into meeting our obligations and opportunities as an Arctic nation, the investment in the Arctic can, if done properly, be a significant factor in developing an Arctic economy that meets the needs and the aspirations of the communities involved and meets the goals of who we are as a state and as a nation.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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