GUEST COMMENTARY: Time to act on opportunities of changing Arctic

The United States has been an Arctic nation since it purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, yet no sitting president has ever ventured to the Alaskan Arctic. That will change when President Obama arrives there later this month to address a conference on Arctic issues. While he has signaled his intent to focus on climate change, an important issue that affects us all, it should be one of many dimensions to our nation’s Arctic strategy.

There are many who have called the Arctic home for generations, and expect to for generations to come. There is much to be addressed in the Arctic to sustain our people’s presence here, and to assert our nation’s stewardship of the region. The timing is urgent, particularly in light of increased human activity from many nations related to shipping, oil and gas development, commercial fishing, military, and even tourism.

As Alaskans, we call for a two-prong strategy to effectively advance U.S. interests in the Arctic. First, we must invest in critical infrastructure necessary to support core government missions and increased human activity. At a minimum, new ports and safe harbors, equipment and facilities for oil spill response and additional Polar class icebreakers for the U.S. fleet are required for safe maritime traffic in the Arctic. 

Currently, there are only two active Coast Guard icebreakers in the U.S. fleet, the Polar Star and the Healy, one of which is nearing retirement and the other primarily used for research. Despite record low sea ice levels, most of the northern waters are still covered in some degree of sea ice.

The U.S. must provide the Coast Guard with the needed tools to address its mission including new icebreakers and other boats with Arctic capacity, as recently proposed by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Arctic communities have excellent search and rescue response on a smaller scale, but aren’t prepared for larger emergency events.

With the anticipated increase in human and vessel traffic, communication, search and rescue, law enforcement and disaster response capabilities are even more critical. The harsh Arctic environment requires that the response time to any disaster must be executed swiftly. The nearest permanent Coast Guard facility is in Kodiak, 945 nautical miles south of Barrow, the population center on the north slope of Alaska. It is time for the Coast Guard to expand its northern presence to include a permanent Arctic station. 

Another essential investment is a deep-water port in the Arctic. At present, there are none. A deep-water port has obvious economic benefits, but it also improves safety by providing a safe haven for large ships navigating the Arctic waters. Ideally the U.S. would invest in a system of ports and safe harbors across the Arctic covering both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

A combination of public and private investment in projects such as these will likewise sustain further investments in other critical infrastructure needs, like telecommunications and renewable energy generation, which are currently limited in some parts of the Arctic.

Next, to guide these strategic investments the U.S. must engage its citizens in the Arctic, Alaska Natives, who settled the area thousands of years ago. Many of the residents lead a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and gathering food from the land and sea, requiring unique knowledge.

This traditional knowledge has provided the basis for a people and a culture to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Nobody understands the Arctic better than the Alaska Native people who have called the Arctic home for so long. We must incorporate this knowledge as a valuable tool for planning and implementing how the Arctic is developed.

We have a unique, but limited opportunity to act. In addition to the immediate attention the president will bring to this region, the U.S. just assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an 8-nation consortium that exists to promote coordination among the Arctic States on common Arctic issues like sustainable development and environmental protection. This two-year leadership role won’t belong to the U.S. again until 2031.

The momentum may never be stronger. Our leaders should seize it to fashion a comprehensive Arctic strategy — one that addresses climate but also responsible development, safety, infrastructure, and economic opportunity for Alaska Natives.

Joule, mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough, is an Alaska Native and lives in Kotzebue. Duncan, CEO of GCI, is also co-chair of the Alaska Arctic Council Host Committee.

08/26/2015 - 2:18pm