Bryce Ward

Bryce Ward

Following significant public comment urging action, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly on Thursday approved a resolution to create a Joint Climate Change Task Force.

Sponsored by Assemblywomen Leah Williams and Marna Sanford, the resolution passed, 8-1.

Assemblyman Aaron Lojewski acknowledged a warming climate but voted “no” because of uncertainty about the cause.

Chambers were standing room only from 6-6:50 p.m., the first round of public comment. 

The crowd had diminished some when the resolution came up again for more testimony at 7:30 p.m., but many had remained.

Overall, the assembly took more than three hours of testimony. Four dozen people supported the resolution; only three were opposed.

The task force will comprise borough staff, residents and community partners, and will hold its first meeting by mid-November.

Its goal is to develop an action plan appropriate for a second class borough, such as the FNSB.

Borough Mayor Bryce Ward expects the task force to provide an avenue for the administration to work with the community.

“There’s lots of opportunities for the borough to see benefits in a plan like this,” Ward said.

According to the resolution, “A climate action plan is the best platform to outline urgently needed comprehensive mitigation and adaptation strategies to address a changing climate.”

Williams acknowledged a comprehensive action plan would cost money, but the task force’s first job is identifying funding needs and sources.

Any budget appropriation would likely require assembly approval through an ordinance.

Possible powers the borough can exercise to address climate change include solid waste, recycling, transportation systems, water pollution, stormwater management and land-use powers.

The resolution states that rising temperatures, heavier summer rains, shorter snow seasons and increasing winter rain will impact the health and well-being of borough residents.

Economic and safety challenges posed by climate change include pests, diseases, flooding, hazardous travel and infrastructure damage, according to the resolution.

Public testimony, often urgent and emotional, touched on countless themes.

Doreen Simmonds recounted living in Utqiagvik for 50 years.

“I saw the ocean freeze, every winter, all the way until July. Then, in 1995, the ocean ice opened up all of a sudden, and it’s been opening every year since,” she said.

Barry Whitehill said that when he moved to Fairbanks in 1992, residents told him not to plant his garden before June 1, advice he long ago abandoned.

“This year, I had the garden planted on May 4, and I’ve harvested zucchini well into September,” he said.

Drawing an analogy from a car accident during a freezing rain incident (she received minor injuries), Martha Raynolds said the task force “would essentially be putting a seat belt on for Fairbanks.”

Scott Eickholt, speaking on behalf of himself and as business manager of Laborers Local 942, said few things are more certain than climate change, for which he considers himself not just a witness, but responsible.

“Aside from the desperate situation our state is in financially, climate change is more dire than any of it,” Eickholt said.

One of the few opponents, former Assemblyman Lance Roberts, was upset not just at a task force, but also that it was presented in a resolution, instead of an ordinance, “because it didn’t go to Finance Committee ... and this is all about cost.”

He said staff on the task force and increased taxes to fund programs would drive up property taxes and force people to lose their homes.

Government controls would constitute “environmental tyranny,” he said.

A few commenters objected more to semantics than substance, such as Robert Shields and Mike Prax.

“Climate change is the wrong title. It’s too broad, it’s all encompassing.

“I think you’d be better off, further ahead in the long run, to think of specific things that are achievable,” Prax said.

Even though many supporters shared their deep concerns, some found a silver lining.

“This is the most enjoyment I’ve received, ever, from a borough meeting,” Phil Osborn said.

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