As US Outlines Arctic Council Goals, Native Groups and State Lawmakers Left Wanting

U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp (Ret.) addresses the 2014 Arctic Circle meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland. (Photo: ArcticCircle.org)
U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp (Ret.) addresses the 2014 Arctic Circle meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland. (Photo: ArcticCircle.org)

The state department has outlined the nation’s top priorities as the U.S. prepares to chair the international Arctic Council in April, but some Alaska Native groups and state officials argue the national goals are lacking.

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In Yellowknife, Canada in late October representatives of the U.S. Department of State gave a presentation closed to media—but directed at the other seven nations on the Arctic Council, as well as several observer nations—outlining the U.S. government’s three key “thematic areas” for the country prepares for its two-year term as Arctic Council chair.

Robert Papp, who retired as U.S. Coast Guard Admiral in May and was appointed by Secretary of State John Kerry as the nation’s special representative for the Arctic in July, discussed those themes at the Article Circle 2014 meeting in Iceland last week. Papp said on of the three “themes” the U.S. would focus on includes climate change.

“Reducing black carbon emissions and methane emissions are worthy goals that we need to work on with the international community to achieve,” Papp told the multinational crowd assembled in Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík. “I see this as a particular area in which our Arctic Council observer nations can become involved, and assist in some of those forward leaning and actionable outcomes.”

Papp also stressed that stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, including a focus on ocean acidification, would be part of the U.S. emphasis. He stressed better preparation for a maritime disaster or oil spill, especially as a former mariner with the Coast Guard, is an especially high priority.

“We need to be working together, just not coming to agreements on search and rescue and oil [spill] prevention,” Papp continued, “but implementing actionable items, and practicing together, and learning from each other so that we can assist each other when those emergencies inevitably occur.”

Beyond climate change and Arctic Ocean issues, the U.S. chair is also focusing on improving the “economic and living conditions” of Arctic residents, including renewable energy, sanitation and public health, suicide prevention, and telecommunications.

But for groups like the Inuit Circumpolar Council, an international body representing more than 150-thousand Inuit peoples across the world, the priorities lack focus on the rights of the North’s first peoples.

“I think it’s been very clear for quite some time that when it comes to indigenous rights, both the US and the State of Alaska have been very hesitant to open up that discussion,” said Jim Stotts, the president of ICC Alaska.

Stotts said the three broads themes the U.S. is advocating aren’t a surprise, and he stressed ICC agrees they are important, but Stotts said issues like self-determination for native peoples, along with hunting and fishing rights, that are absent.

“ICC has been promoting for some time to have a project at the Arctic Council that would look at food security form the perspective of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples,” Sotts said. “In particular, the safety of the food, the access to the food, and the health of the environment … As of yet, it hasn’t really been addressed, [and] the food security is one that we wished would have been addressed.”

Stotts said those conversations will continue on the local and national level, if not at the international Arctic Council.

The state’s own Arctic Policy Commission also criticized the national priorities. Last month Anchorage Senator Lesil McGuire and Bethel Representative Bob Herron wrote an open letter to Papp, saying the national priorities must do more the emphasize job creation in rural Arctic communities. That’s an imperative the state’s two top Arctic commissioners say is lost with the fed’s more general economic focus.

“We are very concerned that our number one priority, jobs and economic opportunity for Arctic residents, is being ignored,” McGuire and Herron wrote. “We believe that jobs and economic development for the people that actually live in the Arctic is a high priority and not an afterthought for Alaskans.”

The two state lawmakers are urging the State Department to create an advisory committee from Alaska, made up of local government and Alaska Native representatives, to ensure the three years the U.S. will spend as as chair of the Arctic Council reflects the priorities of America’s only Arctic state.