Pull up a chair: Alaskans now sit at the table within the Arctic Council.

Author:Anderson, Tom

There remains a majestic, magnificent, and considerably virginal region on the Earth that swirls with weather patterns above the ice and bustles with organisms and sea life below. In this seemingly remote expanse of 14.5 million square miles, comparable to the dimensions of Antarctica, sustainable economic development and essential transportation routes are just upon the horizon.

This remarkable and thriving place is known as the Arctic, a name derived from the Greek word "arktos," which refers to bears, also tying in Ursa Major, a North Pole constellation. The state of Alaska, and by extension the United States, is inextricably linked to the regions vibrant utility. Alaska is not only dependent on the Arctic for prospective commerce and international relations but is also protective of its rich resources, access, and borders.

Why the Arctic?

There is no country or nation that "owns" the North Pole or the surrounding Arctic Ocean region. The nomenclature varies in legality when it comes to international property law, but it's sufficient to say exclusive economic zones (EEZ) exist adjacent to bordering countries' coastlines up to 200 nautical miles or 230 actual miles. There are five nations that surround the Arctic region: Canada, Denmark (via Greenland, which is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark), Norway, the Russian Federation, and the United States (via the state of Alaska). There are three others nation states, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden, with territory in the Arctic. These eight nations are considered the Arctic nations. Once past the 230-mile invisible demarcation, international waters are in play and ownership recognition disappears.

One contentious facet to burgeoning Arctic policy is the recognition of ownership and access rights to the sea bottom and continental shelves beyond the 230-mile boundary. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was enacted to allow Arctic nations to make claim on extended continental shelf exclusivity. In 1996 Norway accepted and ratified the UNCLOS; the next year in 1997 Russia followed, then Canada in 2003, and Denmark in 2004. The United States has signed but not ratified UNCLOS.

Ratification of a treaty requires consent by two-thirds of the one hundred-member United States Senate so long as the treaty does not contravene the Constitution. In the case of the Law of the Sea Treaty, the anti-ratification side, many of whom are Alaskan policymakers and business leaders, argue that national sovereignty and navigational access are at risk, along with environmental concerns that other nations could harm the Arctic. De-militarization, taxation impacts, and economic apprehension, as nations inch their way into control of what were once international waters and neutral sea floors, are additional concerns.

Genesis of the Arctic Council

Twenty-five years ago, through prodding from Finland, the eight Arctic countries met in Rovaniemi to discuss protection of the far north and cooperative ways to share data and research. Emissaries from the eight countries worked towards a ministerial designation (from each nation) to oversee and handle responsibility of circumpolar policy. A plan evolved called the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, and Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics participated. By 1991 the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was signed. Attention to the Arctic and momentum from interested countries heightened, and by 1996 the Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council was signed and established by the eight Arctic countries in Ottawa, Canada. The Council members affirmed commitment to the well-being of the inhabitants of the Arctic with special recognition to the indigenous populations. The protection of the environment, including ecosystems, biodiversity, and conservation, were articulated. Economic development, and specific reference to sustainable use of natural resources, was also crafted into the Declaration. The eight nation members would thereafter be...

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