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Political and ecological challenges mark 2017 in the Arctic

December 29th, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

It was a blustery year in the Arctic, both politically and ecologically. Communities came face to face with the devastating effects of climate change in 2017, while the region faced social, economic and governmental hurdles in policy and decision-making. Some Arctic narratives took a new course forward this year, while others stalled behind age-old roadblocks. Here is a look back at the changing tides of 2017 on the North Slope and in the Northwest Arctic:

Storm surge

Catastrophic storms bookended 2017 along the western and northern Alaska coastlines, leading Gov. Bill Walker to issue multiple disaster declarations for the region, seeking to tap into additional funding for recovery and rebuilding.

The first storm hit the Bering Straits region and the Northwest at the tail end of 2016 and early 2017.

"St. Lawrence Island took the brunt of it," said Melanie Bahnke, president and CEO of Kawerak, Inc., speaking to the Sounder from Nome in January. "I just talked to the mayor in Savoonga to check in with them. Their landlines are down. There was one home that blew completely in half. There was a new teen center that was being built that blew off its foundation. There was damage reported to about 25 homes."

In Kotzebue, the sea ice flooded, making it unsafe to travel across for hunting or snow machining until it had re-frozen. Kivalina saw flooding, as well, which compromised some of the ice outside the village.

Later in the year, the North Slope caught the brunt of an autumn storm that battered the northern coast during the last week of September.

"Utqiaġvik sustained severe losses and threats to property and life due to wind and high surf storm surges over the course of several days," noted Kenneth Robbins, advisor to the North Slope Borough mayor, at the time.

The storm destroyed thousands of feet of road across the city, as well as a portion of the town's retaining wall, protective berm and super sack sandbags.

Brackish floodwaters also came extremely close to breaching the town's drinking water lagoon, as it nearly did two years before.

The borough estimated damages could tally in the millions. The governor declared a disaster for the storm and monetary assistance began opening up at the end of December.

In November, the fall storms that have always hit the Arctic coast hard, but that are made more devastating by lack of sea ice, returned to the region, flooding the beach around Kivalina and Kotzebue and causing property damage in Deering.

Locals know their communities are often ill-equipped to deal with the ever-worsening storms, and not for lack of trying, but rather for lack of support and funding, in many cases. They have seen feet of coastline lost to the sea over the last decade, watched homes fall off foundations and infrastructure crumble. Now, many are looking to the future and calling on those in power to seriously evaluate how they plan on dealing with these severe weather events in the years to come.

Marching messages

It was, however, the stormy political climate that inspired a series of rallies across the region this year.

Both Utqiaġvik and Kotzebue stood in solidarity with communities in southern Alaska and the Lower 48 in January when community members took to the streets in the name of equality.

"I wanted to feel part of the global community of women's marchers," Utqiaġvik march organizer Leslie Pierce told the Sounder. "For me, the march is about equality and equal rights for all. There are good reasons to be worried at this time and I need to stand up and voice my concerns as a citizen participating in the democratic process. It's my right but also my responsibility."

The marches took place the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration. It was a chilly day in Washington, D.C., where the parent march happened, and temperatures dipped down into the negatives at the top of the world.

"I think a lot of people have different motivations. My mom, for example, wanted only to stay positive and show support for the greater movement," said Utqiaġvik marcher Sara Thomas, who is Pierce's daughter. "I wanted to show support for those now at risk of deportation, at risk of being added to a registry, at risk of losing access to basic healthcare, being more susceptible to hate crimes, but I also absolutely marched in protest of the inauguration of a man who I do not think should have ever made it to this point. Each person has their own take."

In May, groups hit the streets for the March for Science. Then, in August, in the wake of the Charlottesville protests, Utqiaġvik locals organized a rally against racism.

"Showing solidarity locally for events that may be geographically distant is important because that local support adds to the collective din which signals the strength of a position, which is that love prevails against hate and that there is strength in diversity," said one of the organizers, Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie. "It provides an opportunity for people to express how they're feeling about national events as we are all Americans with a stake in the outcomes of our country. If people think that these dynamics cannot take hold in a place like Alaska or the North Slope, to that I say, we are not impervious to a dislike of change, nor are we immune to fear. But we can overcome base instincts, commit to being better, and lead in love."

New name

Change was the name of the game this year in Utqiaġvik, with 2017 being the first full contemporary year the town has held that name.

Voters elected, by a narrow margin, to change the hub community's moniker in 2016 away from the colonial Barrow and to the historic Utqiaġvik.

But that change didn't come without its share of disagreement. Ukpeaġvik Inupiat Corp. brought a lawsuit against the city for the name change, saying it was done too hastily and had caused harm to the corporation, which uses another historic name for the area in its title.

On Jan. 31, the Utqiaġvik City Council voted down an ordinance that would have sent the name change back to a vote of the people.

"What I want to share is that in the short two months that we reclaimed our original name as Utqiaġvik, I have seen pride grow, pride in our young people, pride in our older people, pride in the fact that you, as a city council, honored our language by reclaiming Utqiaġvik as the traditional name for this place we call home here now," local resident Pausauraq Jana Harcharek told the council at their meeting.

In March, a Superior Court judge ruled the city could keep its name, despite ongoing litigation, which was finally resolved, in favor of the city, later in the year.

Historic holiday

Another change that came to pass in the North Slope's hub this year also centered on names and history.

This summer, in the middle of Nalukataq, Gov. Bill Walker signed Indigenous Peoples Day into law atop a 55-gallon oil drum in Utqiaġvik.

"Alaska's Native peoples are an integral part of the spiritual, cultural, political, and historic fabric of what is now the Last Frontier," Walker said in a statement at the time. "This official recognition is just one way we, as a state, can acknowledge and celebrate the contributions made by First Peoples throughout the history of this land. I'm incredibly honored to sign this legislation."

The region's legislators attended the signing, as did several local residents and a handful of children.

"I think what's going to happen in the future is, especially the children who are coming up now, are going to recognize that the Native people in Alaska have been significant contributors not just to what's happened here but also what's going to happen in the future," said Sen. Donny Olson (D-Golovin) to the Sounder. "If you look at things like the Alaska state seal, there's nothing there on the seal that shows that you have any kind of Native influence. You see ships from the Russians. You see farmers from the [Mat-Su] Valley. You see mountains and those kind of things, but there's nothing that exemplifies or shows that there were indeed people here before or any significance to that."

Olson pushed the bill through the Senate, while former Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kiana) carried the bill in the House alongside more than a dozen co-sponsors from around the state.

The holiday will be recognized, now formally, on the second Monday in October — the same day as Columbus Day, which has come under fire in recent years for its colonialist roots.

Celebrating culture

Reclaiming indigenous space in the social narrative was also a theme this year across the far north.

Arctic residents rallied behind teenage Gambell whaler Chris Agragiiq Apassingok this spring when he came under fire after a photo of the whale he landed made its way across social media and onto the radar of environmental activist Paul Watson. Watson, and others, publicly bullied the teen. Some harassed him on his private Facebook account.

Hunters and other members of the Arctic community rushed to support Apassingok, posting photos of themselves with whales and caribou.

"I can't pretend to understand how any adults feel the need to encourage other adults to cyber stalk a 16-year-old for providing food for an entire village, but he has," wrote Maija Katak Lukin, of Kotzebue, on Facebook. "What most couch bullies don't understand is the need for 'supplemental' food from the land that our people have been living off for thousands of years. Maybe the other way around ... we need supplemental food from the store because of the introduction of non-local foods ... . Congrats Chris and family, how proud you must be!"

Facebook itself became the focus earlier this year, as well, when it introduced its very own Iñupiatun interface through its translations app. The new function allows speakers to collectively build a version of the English site in Iñupiatun.

The interface was championed by former Kotzebue residents Myles Creed and brothers Grant and Reid Magdanz, with the help of the North Slope's Cordelia Kellie.

"One of the things I'm excited about this project is it truly will become a community project," Kellie told the Sounder earlier this year. "It was originated by a few but it's providing the opportunity to take an initiative and put it in the hands of the speakers."

The same group also spearheaded efforts to give second-language speakers a place to feel comfortable this year during the first-ever Iḷisaqativut, an intensive language academy they held in Utqiaġvik in May.

"The idea came from other language programs done in other parts of the world. If you were starting from ground zero and were going to learn Spanish or Chinese or French, you'd be able to go abroad or take an intensive language course that met a couple hours a day and would give you homework, and you'd learn pretty quickly," said Reid. "Nothing like that exists for Inupiaq. I thought, if that's the model of language instruction around the world, we should be doing that here."

Tech times

Following outside models forged the path for technology in the far north in 2017.

At the end of January, Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative (ASTAC) finished converting its system on the North Slope to 4G. Kaktovik was the final village to join the fold on Jan. 13.

"There's a lot to be excited about," said ASTAC General Manager and CEO Jens Laipenieks. "The transition from what was our 2G network into this 4G network is kind of the equivalent of going from dial-up to faster broadband or DSL and beyond. It's a transformational event in communications up there on the Slope."

Then, in August, GCI finished construction of its 3,300-mile Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska (TERRA) broadband network, which criss-crosses portions of the Northwest Arctic.

"If you were to stretch out the entire network, it would be more than the width of the United States. The perimeter is bigger than the state of Texas. So, if TERRA were a state, it would be the second-biggest state in the nation," said GCI spokesperson Heather Handyside. "It's a massive milestone infrastructure project."

The project comprises a network of underground cables and above-ground microwave towers capable of bringing broadband service to more than 80 communities across the state.

Across the Arctic, though, people were waiting throughout the year with baited breath for December and the final arrival of Quintillion service to the northern coast.

The last portion of the Alaska subsea fiber-optic cable line was installed at the end of October and the system went live at the end of the year.

The Alaska portion is about 1,400 miles of land and ocean cable that connects Prudhoe Bay and Nome with branching lines to Utqiaġvik, Point Hope and Kotzebue.

Although the rollout is now complete, locals are still waiting for the speed and connectivity benefits of the new system to show themselves consistently and reliably.

Road rumblings

The future will also show what becomes of a handful of road projects that either began, continued or were proposed in 2017.

After more than three decades of discussion, the Cape Blossom road project finally got underway this year.

"It's a big deal. People here have been looking for this project to be done for a long time and I'm just really, really excited it's actually becoming a reality and progress is being made," Kotzebue City Manager Shawn Gilman told the Sounder in June. "I think that's absolutely wonderful."

The roughly 11-mile road will provide access from the Kotzebue Electric Association wind farm to Cape Blossom, southwest of town on the Baldwin Peninsula. It should provide two-lane, all-season access from town to the coast, which some hope will be the future site of a deepwater port.

Measuring about 200 miles longer, the proposed Ambler road has garnered a flurry of reactions from across the state since the Bureau of Land Management announced it would be holding public scoping meetings as part of its development of an environmental impact statement.

If constructed as planned, the road would cross the southern foothills of the Brooks Range from the Ambler Mining District to the Dalton Highway, providing a commercial access corridor for industry vehicles.

While many industry reps are in favor of such development, locals have expressed concern about the road's potential impacts on subsistence hunting grounds and the caribou herds that cross its proposed path.

Similar hesitation has been voiced about the proposed Arctic Strategic Transportation and Resources (ASTAR) roads project across the North Slope.

Just over $7 million dollars were penciled into the capital budget for the project this year, to be doled out for planning over the next three years.

The proposal shows a series of interconnected roads spanning the borough and crossing near villages and the oil patch.

"We are on the cusp of a new planning effort with lots of new excitement and in the middle of all that, we feel we have timed our request to fund an effort to really intensely look at this area," said Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack in August.

If completed, the project would provide access to the oil patch for industry use, but would also give year-round road access to many villages that currently rely on air carriers and winter snowmachine trails to get around.

Mine money

Industry and local government in the Northwest Arctic settled a multi-year disagreement this spring with the negotiation of a new financial agreement between the two entities.

In early 2016, Teck Alaska, which operates Red Dog Mine, filed a complaint in Superior Court against the Northwest Arctic Borough over a tax change that went into place at the start of the year.

Historically, Teck paid the borough through a payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) agreement, which was put into place more than two decades ago. The most recent renegotiation of the PILT agreement expired at the end of 2015 and the borough instated a municipal severance tax on Jan. 1, 2016. Had it continued, Teck would have been responsible for paying much more than it had in the past and the borough would have reaped the benefits and been able to put the funding back into its communities, as it outlined at the time.

"Teck's approach [to negotiations] has been to question the borough's authority, ignore the borough's proposal, and to insist on maintaining the arrangement agreed upon years ago that was originally intended to offer fiscal certainty for a still unproven and developing mine," wrote the borough last year.

For months, the two entities sat on opposite sides of the debate, hashing out details and sending plans back for reworking. However, in April of this year, the borough assembly approved an ordinance supporting a new agreement between the two that had been negotiated over the past year.

"I think this is a mechanism whereby there will be a lot more clarity and so I think it's a win-win for the region," said Henri Letient, general manager of Red Dog Operations, before the assembly. "I'm very pleased with where we're at today and very proud of the work the negotiating team did. I'm looking forward to a good outcome of this for the benefit of the region."

As part of the new agreement, there is a new PILT, of sorts, that includes a higher annual payment from Teck and a longer lifespan than the previous plan.

There is also a memorandum of commitment between both parties that includes a village improvement fund for the borough. Teck will pay out a starting fund of $11 million to the borough, intended for the outlying villages, and will make annual payments of $4-8 million over the course of the agreement's 10-year span.

"I know this borough has been financially strapped for a couple of years and maybe not [have been] able to do the things that maybe needed [to be] done in the way they needed to be done, but the borough is in this for the long haul. It also learned that some of your financial resources that you put away helped you through this process. So, what I'm trying to get at is while the temptation is there, if you sign the dotted line to spend a lot of money on things you want to do, one of the options I would throw out is to exercise some caution and put a little aside for the long term and continue to do that," said former borough Mayor Reggie Joule, at the time. "Exercise some restraint and I know that's going to be difficult because the needs of the people in this borough are very immense."

Representative resigns

Representation for both the North Slope Borough and the Northwest Arctic Borough came into question this fall after former Alaska House Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kiana) was accused of sexual misconduct by a former legislative staffer.

The aide wrote a letter of complaint in March about Westlake's behavior to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) and Majority Leader Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage). The letter surfaced on the media scene in December.

"He grabbed me and made a comment about my hair, saying that it 'turned him on.' This incident was obviously unexpected and sudden, so I kept walking before I could think of a response," she wrote in the letter.

She also described a second instance when Westlake "grabbed (her) butt" as he walked past her.

Within a couple of weeks of the first letter surfacing, several other women in Juneau came forward accusing Westlake of sexual harassment and assault.

Fellow legislators called on Westlake to resign, but he declined.

However, in the days after those reports came to light, women and men from around his home district, which includes the Slope and the Northwest, called on him to step down.

"As recent allegations of my behavior have superseded discussions about my constituents, my ability to serve them has been diminished," Westlake wrote in a letter to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon in December. He resigned from his position shortly thereafter.

Following his resignation, an Anchorage TV station reported Westlake had impregnated a teenager while he was living in Kotzebue in the late 1980s. He was in his late 20s at the time.

Now that he has stepped down, the Alaska Democratic Party is charged with finding a replacement from the region. They are currently accepting applications for the position and have designated a committee to look them over and choose three candidates to forward to Gov. Bill Walker, who will name his successor.

A handful of notable locals have put their names in. The party hopes to have a new representative in place for the start of the next legislative session in January.

To 2018

2017 saw the passing of young people and older leaders alike.

Former North Slope Borough Mayor Jeslie Kaleak died this year at the age of 65. He is remembered for his leadership during times of transition for the community.

Elder James Nageak passed away in December at the age of 77. He was known for his bright smile and passion for teaching his language. In February, Utqiaġvik lost one of its most notorious characters in Joe "the Waterman" Shults. Shults died after a long battle with cancer at the age of 62. He was known as the proprietor of Joe's Museum, a hodgepodge collection of curiosities, Alaskana and local artifacts he collected over the course of more than 30 years.

In an interview with Alaska Dispatch News in January, he said he hoped he'd leave a legacy in town.

"Two hundred years from now, I hope people would go there and say, 'Boy, that Joe the Waterman put all this together, collected all this,'" he said. "'That must have been quite a time to be here.'"

And quite a time it has been.

While many were lost this year, other new leaders and creative minds emerged, using their wisdom for guidance.

There were significant changes in 2017, both disagreements and understandings. There are many issues that have yet to be settled and others that are just beginning to arise. It's been a stormy year, with all its ups and downs, but a noteworthy one.

With 2017 in the books, it's now time to look ahead to the next year and all the challenges, joys and memories it will bring.

Quyanaqpak, Taikuu, thank you for sharing your stories with us this year and we look forward to sharing 2018 with you.

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at

Correction: The headline of this story first read, "Weathering the storm: Political and ecological challenges mark 2017 in the Northwest Arctic". It should have read, "Weathering the storm: Political and ecological challenges mark 2017 in the Arctic". The story is about both the Northwest Arctic and North Slope.


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