Alaska editorial: United States ought to start acting like an Arctic nation

Posted: Thursday, July 02, 2009

Alaskans are well aware of something the rest of the country generally overlooks: We are an Arctic nation. As the Arctic warms, polar ice retreats and a race for resources gets under way, the United States has a huge stake in what is happening in the far north. So do the Alaskans who live at the front lines, coping with the profound change that's under way. That's why U.S. Sen. Mark Begich wants to give Alaska's Arctic residents a formal way to offer their advice and perspective on decisions affecting the region.

His idea is modeled on the successful citizens' advisory council set up in the early 1990s for Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That council is a well-funded watchdog, keeping an eye on the oil pipeline and tanker operations to help avoid a repeat disaster.

Ideally, the Arctic citizens' council would speak to a broad range of issues, not just oil development. That's how Sen. Begich proposed it, as part of his broader call to set a national policy for the Arctic, which he delivered earlier this month.

In a speech to an Arctic symposium in Annapolis, Md., he outlined what the nation should be doing.

"A key component of any national policy for the changing Arctic," he said, "must be the involvement of indigenous peoples of the north." Their local and traditional knowledge will bring valuable perspective to decisions that have to be made.

Giving citizens a formal voice, especially with funding to make their participation meaningful, has drawn predictable opposition. Industry generally sees it as another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy and added cost.

Sen. Begich has tried to quell those fears. "This is not a roadblock to development," he said in his speech. In fact, Begich said, the advisory council "should be a proactive way to ensure that development occurs in a responsible manner." That's because the citizens' role would be strictly advisory. With better participation and better information, the process should yield better decisions about the Arctic. The more residents feel they've been heard, the less chance they'll try to obstruct development.

Sen. Begich's Arctic agenda includes other helpful steps. He wants the U.S. Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty, which was negotiated 27 years ago. While the U.S. generally complies with the treaty, we cannot pursue claims to oil and other resources in the Arctic beyond the current 200-mile limit unless the Senate formally ratifies the agreement. Sen. Begich would like the nation to appoint an official diplomatic ambassador for the Arctic, to bring more weight to the U.S. perspective in international discussions about the far north.

Other items on the senator's agenda include creating a clearinghouse for Arctic research, which would reduce duplication of effort, and expanding the presence of the Coast Guard, which now patrols the U.S. Arctic from a base in Kodiak.

The senator's Arctic agenda is a good one, though details in several areas need to be worked out. He deserves credit for calling his colleagues' attention to this often-overlooked area of the nation's responsibilities. Thanks to Alaska, the United States is an Arctic nation. We ought to start acting like one.

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