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Inupiaq leaders bring local knowledge, environmental concerns to conference

September 7th, 2012 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

A late August conference centered on Arctic issues featured speakers from around the country, around the world and also from notable locations around Alaska's Arctic.

"Whenever you have over 200 leaders," said North Slope Mayor Charlotte Brower after the conference, "from industry, science and research organizations, the Federal and State Government and the International leaders that were in attendance, it's a good thing."

The Arctic Imperative Summit focused on development and changes

man made and natural
occurring within the far North. Several Inupiaq leaders spoke on panels and gave presentations regarding these changes, and what they mean to Alaska's Arctic communities and way of life.

They each brought up advice, questions and issues unique to their locations and occupations

showing the diversity of concerns brewing in Arctic communities.

Many leaders, including Brower, stressed the need for collaborative development.

"It is an exciting time with new activity in the Arctic," Brower said, "but it is also a time of concern. We have reminded the many visitors this summer that we are not just a battle ground for competing agendas or propagandas. We have the most to lose from these mistakes. We have also much to gain

if it's done right. We are eager to partner, share our experience and work collaboratively."

Brower said a recent agreement between the North Slope Borough and the state's department of natural resources will allow the two entities to partner on the permitting process for oil and gas development.

After the summit, Brower said this far involvement of local knowledge has been positive.

"One of the greatest strengths in the onshore development planning process is its extensive reliance on local input," Brower said. "This is due to a robust public process that in some cases even includes an ownership stake by local Native corporations. It is this local participation that makes onshore development successful on the North Slope."

The people of the North Slope are eager to benefit from the influx of jobs and resources that development could bring, Brower said, though they always proceed with some caution.

"The Arctic is changing, both environmentally and economically," Brower said.

"We welcome these opportunities. But be clear we are much less eager to participate if we are an afterthought or not even invited to the table. We are experts on the Arctic. We have subsisted off the ocean and the tundra for thousands of years.

It is time for us as leaders to step up. Economy and ecology share the same root. Eco, home. A healthy economy and healthy ecology go hand in hand, together like bread and water

the marine mammals and the sea."

Hugh Patkotak of the Olgoonik Corp. was also eager to find the balance between economy and environment.

Wainwright is the village closest to the oil and gas leases, Patkotak said, and could supply a ready workforce.

"While we strive to secure long term employment and a sustainable local economy for Wainwright," Patkotak said, "the protection of our shareholders and our environment takes precedence in every decision made about development."

He said the Inupiaq people and their leaders have a challenge ahead of them as changes continue to swirl around their traditions, people and land.

"Wainwright is so much more than a strategic location of interest," Patkotak said. "It is more than a staging area. It is our home and that of our children and of our ancestors. Our roots as a people and as a culture run deep. (But) we no longer function in an isolated barter economy, or rely totally on subsistence as our ancestors did. Our households are transitioning between the old and the new

holding strong to traditional Inupiaq values while acknowledging the reality of living in a cash based society."

George Noongwook also expressed a note of caution, a theme in almost every presentation from a local. Caution, it seemed, for both the people he represents and the investors and development professionals he was addressing.

"When you come to the Arctic to develop resources you face a narrow path between financial success and failure," Noongwook said. "But for those of us that call the Arctic home, life is a knife edge between physical and social health on the one hand, and the loss of our individual and social future on the other. So there is a lot at stake for us in the way you conduct your business. And it's in our interest to help you do things right."

Vera Metcalf from the Eskimo Walrus Commission spoke to the need for protection of vital habitat areas as ship traffic increases.

That protection needs to be well defined and then enforced, said Gambell city manager June Walunga. She was very concerned about the increased ship traffic around St. Lawrence Island and the changes that could cause to marine life migration. When she voiced her concerns to the Coast Guard, she said, she felt the issue was left unaddressed.

"The coast guard needs to do a better job," Walunga said. "The tribal governments need to be recognized, supported and included in the international treaties or negotiations. We want to be heard and included in the decision-making in the national and international arena concerning the Bering Strait shipping lane. We must be treated honestly, informed what the pros and cons are, because this has put us in a critical situation that threatens our way of life. We need to sit down and find solutions together."

Pat Pletnikoff, mayor of St. George, spoke to a rapidly changing ocean and a thus far limited amount of communication between villages and major government organizations.

"We've observed what's going on out in that ocean for along time," Pletnikoff said. "And we just want to bring a little bit of caution, and ask that our government pays a little bit of attention."

Some of the next things that need to occur to protect North Slope interests include a guarantee that oil transportation will occur in pipelines and not in tankers, Brower said, and revenue sharing.

"OCS revenue sharing will allow more funding to local and state agencies to sustain local communities, including search and rescue whose mission is the safety and well being of people in the challenging environment in our communities," Brower said. "We are also unable to prepare for the level of activity in the Arctic without funding. We look forward to working with our congressional delegation regarding this important issue."

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at


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