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New US Arctic emissary gets plenty of ideas from Alaskans on priorities

The newly appointed U.S. special Arctic representative, former Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp, has issued a call for ideas about policies that should be promoted at the Arctic Council once the United States assumes chairmanship of that eight-nation body next year.

A major goal for him, as he prepares for the two-year U.S. chairmanship, is convincing the American public that the Arctic is important to the nation, Papp said at a listening session Thursday in Anchorage.

“What’s that striking passionate issue, that national imperative, that’s going to stimulate the American public?” he asked the audience gathered at the NANA Corp. headquarters downtown.

He had no shortage of suggestions from those attending -- representatives of state and local governments, tribes, community groups, academia and business attending the meeting. Ideas for Arctic Council priorities ranged from the nitty-gritty, like investment in projects to make drinking water and food safer, to the esoteric, like promotion of youths’ Arctic knowledge across international borders.

Some emphasized quality-of-life issues.

Larry Hartig, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and Bill Griffith, manager of the department’s water facility programs, said the council should put an international focus on improving water and sewer facilities in underserved parts of the Arctic. They suggested an international counterpart to the department’s ongoing technology competition, the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge.

Heather Hudson, professor of public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, cited telecommunications as a potential focus of the Arctic Council. The council, under U.S. leadership, could promote improvements in broadband communications and work to expand telemedicine, distance education and other communications-based services that would improve lives in remote parts of the Arctic.

Regional energy development should be a major focus of the Arctic Council under U.S. leadership, said others.

“Life in communities is going to be really hard to continue without some relief from the current energy regime that we’re in,” said Matt Ganley of the Bering Straits Native Corp. Without some changes to energy supply, local economic development is not possible, he said. He cited his corporation's efforts to reopen the Rock Creek gold mine near Nome. The corporation’s studies have found that energy costs would eat up 40 percent of the per-ounce gold-production expenses, he said.

Meera Kohler, president of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, had a similar message. “The Arctic is incredibly energy-rich. Yet the citizens of Alaska are energy-poor,” she told Papp and his delegation.

Food security should be a priority of the Arctic Council, some told Papp.

“This is the first year in my entire life that I’ve been unable to fish for salmon on the Yukon River,” said Edward Alexander, a Gwich’in Athabascan chief from Fort Yukon, who cited the salmon woes as an example of projects that should be tackled by the Arctic Council.

The council could address the persistent organic pollutants that are being transported into the Arctic from thousands of miles away – and lingering from local military sites that have not been fully cleaned – and spoiling the wild foods that make up most of the diet of residents on Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, said Vi Waghiyi, an environmental health program director with Alaska Community Action Toxics. It is more than a local problem, she said. “If we’re seeing it on St. Lawrence Island, we’re going to see it in other regions,” she said.

Expansion of Arctic knowledge should be a council priority, others said.

The council should promote international research, including social science studies, said Gunnar Knapp, director of UAA’s Institute for Social and Economic Research. “We have much to learn from each other across the Arctic,” he said.

Diddy Hitchens, a political science professor at UAA, urged Arctic Council support for a mock youth version of the organization -- similar to the model United Nations -- that would allow high school and college students to better understand international Arctic issues. She and others are already working on establishing a model Arctic Council, she said. Such initiatives are sorely needed to engage students in international affairs, she said.

“I’m sad to say that the level of international education here in the United States and elsewhere is not very high,” she said.

A common message from those advising Papp: The Arctic Council needs to make sure that it involves and engages the people who live in the Arctic, especially the indigenous people of the circumpolar north.

Arctic Council officials should travel to places like the Gwich’in villages of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada, Alexander said, and “get away from these four-star hotels and fancy buildings to get a feel for what’s really going on in the Arctic. So bring your tent, admiral.”

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