Rural Alaska

Rare visit from Interior secretary, top politicians puts Kivalina in the spotlight

A climate-imperiled village fearful that it could one day be wiped off the Alaska map will receive a high-profile visit early next week from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and a flock of Alaska politicians furious over recent efforts to limit oil and gas development in Alaska.

Jewell's trip to Inupiat country in Northwest Alaska, expected for months, attracted scant attention until after President Obama announced in late January he would seek to further lock up the oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and take chunks of the U.S. Arctic Ocean off the table for development.

That roiled Alaska leaders, several of whom now plan to trail Jewell to the region for a face-to-face on what those limits mean for a state hit hard by a massive plunge in oil prices and tax income.

With state and national media in tow, the 10 lawmakers and Jewell will travel 600 miles from Anchorage to the Northwest hub city of Kotzebue, then fly to Kivalina on Monday. The visit will give the 400 or so residents in the village a chance to share their concerns about climate change.

The trip is an unusual opportunity for the area, said Reggie Joule, mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough. "It's a chance for people to lend their voice to these officials," he said.

To prepare for the visit in Kivalina, residents are digging up old and new photos to highlight the effects of warming temperatures on the barrier island beside the Chukchi Sea, including to illustrate how weakened sea ice has made spring whaling more dangerous, said Janet Mitchell, city administrator.

"We need to prove to her that we are living the changes and it's real," said Mitchell, referring to Sally Jewell.


The residents also plan a potluck with subsistence foods, including caribou, bearded seal, trout and other fish. Whale and walrus might not be available, she said. "We're hardly getting any nowadays," she said. "As soon as we get them we eat them."

Of course, with the ground frozen and blanketed in snow, now is not the ideal season for a climate change tour. "The best time to come is when it's flooding and we're having erosion problems," she said with a laugh.

That has happened often, including in 2012, when floodwaters scattered garbage and human waste from the landfill into the lagoon because the village lacks a sewer system.

There's also the predicament facing the village's overcrowded school, which is first on the state's new school construction list, thanks to a lawsuit settlement in 2011 that forced the state to build five rural schools.

But a catch in the settlement essentially required that Kivalina's school be built on dry ground. That means before the state can build the $60 million facility, the community must figure out how to fund a seven-mile evacuation road with a causeway to the mainland. The road and causeway could cost roughly $40 million to $60 million, said Millie Hawley, president of the Kivalina tribal government.

Gov. Bill Walker's proposed capital budget provides "legally obligated" funds for the school, with $4.6 million for school design. He also included $2.5 million for the road, on top of $2.5 million provided last year. They were the only projects in the slimmed-down capital budget not matched by federal or other funds.

Despite that support, it's not certain who will pay for the full cost of the road.

That is a "contentious" issue, said Suzanne Armstrong, chief of staff for Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage. "It has to be built for the new school to be built, so there's a considerable amount of discussion among policymakers about who's responsible for building it," she said.

With the state suddenly losing money, some are looking to the Northwest Arctic Borough for support. But the borough doesn't have the money, said Joule. He's hoping the trip will lead to a commitment for funding from the state or even the federal government.

Visiting officials will see a school that is more than 200 percent over capacity, he said.

Sen. Donny Olson, a Democrat who represents the region, said he'll try to convince fellow lawmakers to pay for the road so the school can be built. "It's incumbent on us to follow the settlement," he said.

Jewell's trip began with an invitation last year to the Alaska Federation of Natives retreat, which will start Monday afternoon in Kotzebue after Jewell and the lawmakers return from the village.

The state's largest Native organization wanted Jewell to hear about pressing Native concerns, such as creating sustainable rural economies, while also visiting villages to see the effects of climate change first-hand.

Also on hand in Kotzebue will be the Alaska congressional delegation, as well as Gov. Bill Walker, all of whom have said they were angered by the Obama administration's recent decisions.

Once back in Kotzebue, the state lawmakers will meet with leaders from the region, tour the Alaska Technical Center vocational school and meet with Jewell Monday afternoon. That evening, Jewell, Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will be honored at a community reception.

The heart of AFN's retreat will take place on Tuesday behind closed doors, with lawmakers invited to attend. The Alaska congressional delegation, as well as Mallott, Meyer and House Speaker Mike Chenault, and members of the Walker administration are all scheduled to speak. Native leaders will discuss issues such as food security and building healthy communities.

Olson said he looks forward to hearing Jewell's thoughts on development. The meeting with her will be held in a "nonconfrontational way," he said. "We may disagree, but we don't have to be disagreeable."

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or