Op-Ed: Embrace Challenges, Rewards of Being an Arctic Nation

As Alaskans and the rest of America emerge from their election bunkers and turn on their televisions again, we are faced with another pressing issue of lasting importance: making the Arctic a national and international priority in a manner that benefits those who live in the far north.

Five months from now, in April 2015, the United States will assume the chair of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum among the eight nations with territory inside the Arctic Circle and that includes active participation of the Arctic indigenous groups, with “observer nations” that range from Italy to South Korea. Having the Chair through 2017 means that the United States will have the opportunity to focus the world’s attention on our priorities for the Arctic.

As evidenced by the 1,400-plus participants at the recent 2014 Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland, it is clear that the Arctic conversation has gained momentum. Not only did the U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, Admiral Robert Papp and I attend and speak, but so did the Chancellor of Germany and a senior Minister from Singapore. While many around the world are making the Arctic a priority, I left Reykjavik concerned that there is limited recognition by the international community of the needs of those who live in the Arctic.

For many non-Arctic residents, the Arctic is a pristine, untouched environment that, like a snow globe on a shelf, must not be disturbed. It may come as news to some, but the Arctic is home to approximately four million people, and humans have been living, hunting and working in the Arctic for thousands of years — since before the term “Arctic” was even coined to describe the region — harvesting the natural resources of the region and developing the land. A focus on climate change and its impact on the Arctic is certainly warranted, but it cannot be our sole focus and it should not prevent those who live in the Arctic from developing the resources that are available within their region in order to create a better standard of living.

As I noted in my remarks to the conference, as similar as the people of the Arctic are, there are really two different Arctics with different sets of needs. There is the Nordic Arctic of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland where the infrastructure is developed, multiple transportation options exist and reliable telecommunications and internet access is commonplace. Then there is the Arctic in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and parts Russia that still struggle to access clean drinking water, affordable energy and essential services. In those areas, expansion of existing and new economic development remains the highest priority in order to provide hope for the sustainability of our communities, to retain the best and the brightest in our remote villages and to help counter the high suicide and domestic abuse rates we experience.

When the United States takes over as chair of the Arctic Council, I am hopeful that our agenda will include support for the newly established Arctic Economic Council (AEC) that seeks to bring businesses together with Arctic communities to promote economic investment and benefit those who live in the Arctic. Helping raise awareness of the AEC within the United States, perhaps through interactions with chambers of commerce across the country, will help increase our collective knowledge and interest — and investment — in the Arctic as a nation.

Next year we will be in the driver’s seat on policies, both nationally and internationally, that impact the Arctic. Let’s recognize the benefits as well as the challenges that come from being an Arctic nation and remember our responsibility to those who live in the region. After all, access to clean drinking water should not be too much to ask for in the 21st century.

Alaskans are by nature (and temperament) pioneering types, drawn to opportunity and adventure. Let’s not let the rest of the world rush to the Arctic Frontier without us.