America’s Arctic is an extraordinary place, and it has fired my imagination since I first conducted field research in coastal northwest Alaska in 1977. Although indigenous people have occupied and influenced Alaska’s coast for millennia, the Arctic coastal and marine ecosystem is still wild, pristine and productive. There is still largely a full complement of native fish and wildlife that not only persist, but thrive in the Arctic alongside human communities with vibrant cultures.
Since the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 however, our attempts to access this energy have transformed the landscape of the central Arctic and prompted many changes for the people who live and work, study and recreate in the region. And the pace of change is only accelerating.
Decisions about whether, where and when to drill for more oil and gas are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg—which, not incidentally, is now melting–and increased vessel traffic, tourism, mining and road-building are all on the horizon. All of these changes are occurring in a naturally variable ecosystem, which is now reeling from the effects of an increasingly acidic ocean and a warming climate.
A fundamental problem here is that critical decisions are made in isolation by dozens of different agencies on at least at three levels of government without regard to the cumulative impacts of those decisions across the region. There is no long-term view of what the Arctic should look like 50 years from now, or what is required to sustain a productive ecosystem. Unfortunately, the impacts of decisions made in isolation tend to accumulate and multiply while the Arctic is not so slowly transformed before our eyes. Enter Integrated Arctic Management (IAM).
In 2011, President Obama established the Alaska Interagency Working Group, aimed at analyzing energy development and permitting in the state. Under the leadership of Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes, this working group has been exploring what IAM might look like in the Arctic, and an initial report has now been delivered to the president.
It will take time to delve into the report’s details and recommendations, but the concept of integrated management is the right one. Coordinating decision making among all levels of government, and more effectively engaging communities, partners and stakeholders to make decisions based on sound science and a vision for the future is just common sense. Furthermore, the IAM approach of deciding in advance where the most environmentally sensitive areas are in order to protect, monitor and manage them appropriately makes far more sense than waiting until the ecosystem is fragmented and degraded.
No single report from the Interagency Working Group is going to transform decision making or the Arctic, but my hope is that the seeds of a different approach are contained here. My colleagues and I at Ocean Conservancy will be reading this report with great interest and working to implement recommendations that advance integrated decision making in the Arctic. We know that the old piecemeal approach doesn’t work. It should be in the best interests of all concerned—industry, government, residents, and the public—to try something new.