FAIRBANKS—Officials at the Arctic Science Summit Week being held at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have no trouble listing the far-reaching areas Arctic policy must address or on what to base those policies, but they say determining and implementing specific policies is difficult in a rapidly changing environment.

Resource development, environmental protection, subsistence use, monitoring, increased shipping, enhanced mapping and tsunami and earthquake response are all areas identified as needing enhanced Arctic policies. 

Arctic Council Senior Official Julia Gourley explained the council’s role to hundreds of people in UAF’s Davis Concert Hall on Tuesday.

“Good foreign policy is the work of the (Arctic) Council,” she said. “Policies must be based off facts on the ground, which is to say, they must be based in reality.” 

Gourley was speaking as part of International Assembly Day, a daylong event featuring dozens of speakers and topics with the goal of improving the understanding of science’s role, and addressing gaps, for a better understanding of the Arctic. 

Her sentiments were repeatedly echoed at a separate and smaller media briefing on Arctic policy. 

Mark Myers, former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, offered a real-world example of where policy is needed. 

“Red Dog Mine has 24 light- to mid-weight ships out into the Bering Strait, but without a monitoring system,” he said.

Myers said a big goal of the Arctic Science Summit is to shift the policy paradigm toward an adaptive system. Such a shift has multiple components, but once again, “good policy is based on strong science,” Myers said, adding, “You have to take into account the environment is changing very rapidly.” 

To explain an adaptive policy system, Myers referenced duck hunting — rhetorically asking how to set policy determining where and how many ducks hunters can shoot if habitats and seasons continually change. The same basic questions can be applied to fisheries, resource extraction and a host of other Arctic issues. 

Answers, Myers said, need to be determined by the different stakeholders, who may have competing interests, and based on key metrics for when changes in the system are seen. 

“Inherently, people living on a landscape that are very closely tied to that landscape understand that landscape different than a manager hundreds of miles away,” Myers said. “Adaptive management requires integrative knowledge from the local to the international.”

Stakeholder solutions are rarely effective when environmental conflict is present, such as Pebble Mine, according to Myers. 

Betsy Baker, a professor of law specializing in Arctic issues, challenges the popular notion that countries are trying to strong arm their way to owning the Arctic. 

“There are rules. This is not a race to the Arctic," Baker said before referencing a story by Newsweek reporter Zoë Schlanger, in which Schlanger said "it’s a slow, science-driven crawl."

Because Russia has significantly more Arctic territory than most nations, “People shouldn’t be indignant when when Russia claims a large portion of the (Arctic) shelf. ... Suffice it to say, the Danes were a bit more aggressive than the Russians,” Baker said.  

Baker would like to see policy developed to make sure rural communities can continue to benefit from assets that may lose value — such as coal — perhaps in the form of an economic or market mechanism paying them to keep it in the ground in exchange for investments in renewable energy.  

Despite all the complicated social, economic and environmental issues surrounding the Arctic, Gourley shared the Arctic Council’s seemingly simply recommendations: “Look at the state of the science on any given topic, asses it, and bring it forward with policy recommendations,” while stressing, “This is not the place to do basic or applied science.” 

Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: 

@FDNMcity.