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Alaska must take advantage of U.S. focus on Arctic

  • Author: Bob Herron
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published June 29, 2015

The Legislature's Alaska Arctic Policy Commission issued its Final Report and Implementation Plan in January 2015. During the ensuing session the Alaska Legislature created Arctic committees in the state House and Senate to help guide Gov. Bill Walker's administration in enacting the plan and to continue tracking and formulating policy relating to the Arctic issues most important to Alaska.

Also in January 2015, the White House issued an executive order -- "Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic." The value this executive order offers to Alaska has been largely overshadowed by the fanfare surrounding the United States taking over as chair of the Arctic Council from Canada in April. The Arctic Council is a consensus-driven international body comprised of the eight Arctic nations and six indigenous organizations. The U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship is very important to Alaska and the nation, especially, perhaps, in increasing the Arctic awareness of all Americans – awareness that could eventually bring much needed infrastructure investment to Alaska's Arctic.

The council's need for consensus, however, is at once a strength and a limitation. In contrast, the Arctic executive order is a purely domestic process that does not rely on international compromise. The order itself speaks to this: "As the United States assumes the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, it is more important than ever that we have a coordinated national effort that takes advantage of our combined expertise and efforts in the Arctic region to promote our shared values and priorities."

The executive order creates an Arctic Executive Steering Committee to "enhance coordination of Federal Arctic policies across agencies and offices, and, where applicable, with State, local, and Alaska Native tribal governments." The committee is led by the director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, currently Dr. John Holdren, and includes as members deputies from 17 federal departments and agencies. The committee is in part tasked to spearhead the priorities in the National Strategy for the Arctic Region report (released in January 2014). At a meeting in February, the committee identified four priorities to address: vulnerable coastal and riverside communities threatened by erosion; energy efficiency through renewable energy and weatherization; oil spill response preparedness; and improving consultation with Alaska Natives. Regarding Native consultation, the committee has asked a federal-tribal working group to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of tribal government consultation. Each of these priorities is something I, and I believe most Alaskans, strongly agree with.

The executive order puts in writing the federal government's apparent willingness to collaborate with Alaskans through consultation, coordination and sharing of information with state, local, and Alaska Native tribal governments and similar Alaska Native organizations, and private-sector and nonprofit groups on Arctic issues. Links to the Arctic executive order and federal Arctic reports can be viewed at www.akarctic.com/federal-reports/.

While the federal government works on its report and executive order, Gov. Walker's administration and the Legislature's Arctic committees (I chair the House committee and Sens. Lesil McGuire and Cathy Giessel co-chair the Senate committee) will work on the 32 strategic recommendations in the Alaska implementation plan. These recommendations include facilitating the development of Arctic port systems; addressing Arctic maritime, science, climate and security issues; and strengthening oil spill response organizations: www.akarctic.com.

The Legislature, state agencies, Native organizations, and the numerous federal agencies operating in Alaska can and should work closely together, especially during these next two years of U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship, on Arctic issues most important to Alaskans and to the nation. While Alaskans have never been, nor should be, shy about asserting our sovereignty, it's also important to work with the federal government on issues we agree on, of which there appear to be plenty. Our strategy for working with the federal government should be threefold: communicate early and often; collaborate when our interests align; and vigorously advance Alaska's own interests when they don't.

Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, represents the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the Alaska House. He is currently chair of the House Economic Development, Tourism and Arctic Policy Committee and was recently co-chair of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, along with Sen. Lesil McGuire.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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