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8/15/14 KNBA News - Adm. Papp hears concerns, hopes for Alaska Arctic

Credit Joaqlin Estus / KNBA 90.3 FM
KNBA 90.3 FM
Adm. Popp told meeting participants the U.S. will, at best, get 3-4 issues to put before the Arctic Council, and those would need the consensus of seven other countries to address. He says he's looking for the overriding national interest that will inspire the American public to invest in the Arctic for the future.

Yesterday (Thursday) Alaskans shared some of the concerns about and hopes for the Arctic with the newly appointed U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic. Admiral Robert Papp is no stranger to Alaska, though. He first traveled above the Arctic Circle in 1976, during his first tour of duty in the Coast Guard, and returned several times as Coast Guard Commandant.

Admiral Papp heard from some 20 Alaskans talking about issues they’d like him to take to the international Arctic Council. He’s the nation’s representative to the Council, and in 2015, when its headquarters move to the U.S. from Canada, he becomes its chair.

The head of the state’s Village Safe Water program, Bill Griffith, said all eight Arctic nations face the high cost of building and operating sanitation systems in Arctic environments. He told the panel the state is inviting the Council to join a multi-year collaborative effort to research and develop lower cost technologies, starting with a two-day international symposium to be held in Anchorage in the summer of 2016.

“The conference would provide an opportunity to present best practices, innovative approaches and recent health studies,” said Griffith.  

The panel heard about the lack of basic infrastructure, such as mapping and navigational aids, to support shipping And Matt Ganley, Vice President for Resources and External Affairs with the Bering Straits Native Corporation, says Alaska’s high energy costs are a barrier.

“There's a lot of isolated, these isolated  islands of energy out there in the Arctic, said Ganley, “that unless we build smaller grids to connect communities and unless we begin to expand that infrastructure, really, honestly, economic development cannot occur at the speed we'd like to see it occur.

Karen Halestrom, of St. George in the Pribilof Islands, was one of several people who said communications with the people who are most affected by changes in the Arctic is vital.

“One of the things that is of great concern to all the tribes is are is tribal consultation,” said Halestrom. “So I would just put that as first and key and something to always keep in mind. The second thing is food security for us. The Northern fur seals are decreasing; everything seems to be decreasing.”

People also talked about research opportunities, and the chance to share some of Alaska’s solutions to problems of distance and cost, such as distance learning and telemedicine. They described the need for revenue sharing or funding to support community involvement, and the need for policies on shipping, governance and safety.

Papp wrapped up the meeting by explaining that the possibilities for action are limited.

“The reality is for the Arctic Council, at best, we'll get 3-4 issues that the U.S. will put forward,” said Papp. “We have to get consensus from seven other countries to address those things and they are high level international issues that will hopefully bring those countries together to cooperate and to share and to address some of the issues that you're talking about.”

But he’s optimistic. Papp says after seeing an old runway and some massive hangars in Barrow, he looked into what brought them there:

“There were large flotillas of Navy ships, Coast Guard ships, military Sea Lift Command, both U.S. and Canadian that went up there for two years, 1955 to 1957, transported millions of tons of equipment, millions of barrels of oil,” said Papp. “At times there were 7,500 U.S. and Canadian people working up there, to perform one of the most magnificent engineering feats that's ever happened on earth, to construct 50 radar stations across 3,000 miles of the Arctic.”

Papp says national defense drove that effort and construction of the ALCAN highway across Canada. And the need for energy independence inspired construction of the TransAlaska Pipeline. Papp says he’s searching for a similar inspiration.

“What's that stimulating, passionate issue, that national imperative, that's going to gain the attention of the American public to understand that we are an Arctic nation and we must invest in the Arctic for our future,” said Papp. “Therein lies the challenge. And I still don't have the answer yet.”

Papp is in Fairbanks, then returns to Anchorage for meetings with local, tribal, business, environmental and other leaders.