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‘Week of the Arctic’ in Nome Connects Policymakers with Local Stakeholders

Fran Ulmer, former Lieutenant Governor and now advisor to the Secretary of State for Arctic policy and science, addresses the crowd in Nome at the "Week of the Arctic." Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.

The Institute of the North is in Nome this week for the fourth-annual Week of the Arctic, bringing together policy makers and local stakeholders to discuss short- and long-term goals for America’s presence in the far north.

Balancing larger Arctic ambitions with more local, immediate needs—like running water and affordable energy—dominated the discussion Monday. Nils Andreassen, the executive director of the Institute of the North, prefaced an open forum Monday afternoon with the idea that discussions would be wide-ranging and admittedly ambitious.

“For as much as the long list of infrastructure and needs is, it’s not all going to get addressed through the work that we are doing,” Andreassen said, citing the scope of issues in the Arctic that he said far outweigh the money and political will needed to accomplish them.

That scope is broad: after an early-morning meeting with Mayor Denise Michels and the heads of regional nonprofit Kawerak, Sitnasuak Native Corporation, and other regional leaders, Andreassen opened the floor of Nome’s City Council chambers to public input.

Nome’s Chuck Wheeler was the first to the podium, and lambasted recent assessments that a deep-water harbor at Port Clarence, near the communities of Brevig Mission and Teller on the far western edge of the Seward Peninsula, wouldn’t have an impact on fish, wildlife, or other subsistence resources in the area.

“We own this land. The government is just a trustee. [Their] number one priority is to protect the land, preserve it, and enhance it. But when economic development comes, and big money, they forget about that,” Wheeler said, pointing to the proposed Port Clarence deep-water port harbor.

“There’s 600-plus native tribal entities that live in these three villages, and they’re going to be impacted. Where’s their consideration? That should be a priority. I’ve got a granddaughter who lives in Brevig [Mission]. She’s going to be impacted [by] it. My son’s a full shareholder of Teller Native. He’s going to be impacted.”

“To say there’s no impact, is asinine.”

Switching gears from specific projects to a more general concern, Gwenn Holdman with the Alaska Center for Power at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks said that, for all the talk of Arctic ambitions—and the very real concerns for preparedness as more ships transit Arctic waters—the central problem of affordable, sustainable energy is what will decide the fate of many Arctic communities; and, ultimately, the fate of Arctic development.

“Energy is an issue that’s going to underlie many of the goals you seek to accomplish here,” Holdman said. “When you’re looking at infrastructure build-out, when you’re looking at oil spill response, all of that, I think that the role of affordable energy has been underplayed in a lot of these conversations.”

Pushing the assembled interests to move, she urged them to “[think] about energy a little more broadly,” not only looking into renewable energy resources but also to assess the systems already in place.

Art Ivanoff with the Bering Sea Alliance spoke to needs for education and job experience for youth in rural communities, saying kids in such communities need exposure to the jobs and careers of people working in the Arctic.

During a recent visit to Gambell by the U.S. Coast Guard, Ivanoff said “it was like germinating a seed.”

“It’s really important that we give those kids that insight to career opportunities that they’ve never seen before,” he added. “These types of efforts are necessary, and critical, to not only build our economy but to safeguard our resources that we depend on as well.”

Washington state senator Kevin Ranker, attending as part of the Joint Oceans Commission, urged Alaska law and policy makers to expand the conversation about the U.S. Arctic beyond Alaska—and to other Pacific states like Washington.

“There are similar economic drivers that connect the Arctic to Washington state” beyond the obvious seafood industry links, Ranker said.

“What’s the port route system between the Arctic, and increased vessel traffic to the ports of Tacoma and Seattle?” Ranker asked. “I think it’s very important that we not only, in Washington D.C., elevate the importance in the Arctic, but also in the state connections.”

Getting Washington and other Pacific Northwest lawmakers on board for Arctic action was key, Ranker said.

“The Arctic needs a larger congressional delegation … If we can get Washington congressional delegates and Washington state legislators to start thinking why the Arctic matters, for a local reason, those are really interesting drivers that start to elevate this dialogue.”

After the open forum, the Week of the Arctic meetings moved to Nome’s Mini Convention Center for a series of presentations and panel discussions. Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation representatives gave visitors a run-down of the Community Development Quota, or CDQ program, used to manage marine resources and community investment in the region.

Larry Cotter, CEO of APICDA—the CDQ for the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands—said the success of Alaska’s CDQ groups can be translated to other Arctic nations; an issue of heightened significance as the U.S. prepares to take over the international Arctic Council in April.

 “Absolutely,” Cotter said, when asked of its applicability elsewhere in the circumpolar north. “What you’re talking about doing is taking a portion of a common-property resource and in essence providing that resource to the communities, to determine how to use it to the best benefit to the communities. And the same thing can be done in other Arctic countries around the world.”

A separate roundtable was held late Monday involving young leaders from the Bering Strait region. Andreasson and other young professionals discussed a shared vision for a health Arctic future, involving “adaptation” and “balancing” traditional knowledge with contemporary technologies and education.

During a panel discussing maritime navigation and forecasting, Amy Holman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shared a five-year plan building more accurate forecasts for ice formation and breakup in the Bering Strait.

And at another panel on oil spill response, Dennis Young—representing North Star Stevedore—urged local leaders to take an active part in long-discussed Arctic port development, and to prepare for growth in the region. He emphasized a need to communicate with state and federal organizations to hold “foreign flagged” vessels accountable as Bering Sea traffic increases.

The Week of the Arctic conference continued in Nome Tuesday, with several workshops and a federal listening session. The conference moves to Kotzebue Wednesday and Thursday before concluding in Barrow Friday and Saturday.

KNOM’s Franesca Fenzi contributed to this story.