Last week, I embarked on my first trip as Commerce Secretary to Alaska to see how the Last Frontier directly contributes to our economy, and how the U.S. Department of Commerce can help further support Alaskan communities.
The Arctic’s importance to the Nation continues to grow as the impact of global climate change and loss of sea ice make the region much more accessible. This accessibility has inspired strong interest for new commercial initiatives in the region, including energy production, increased shipping, scientific research, tourism, and related infrastructure development. Last year, the Obama Administration introduced the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, not only in recognition of the growing interest in and vulnerability of the region, but also to prioritize and integrate efforts across the Federal government to explore emerging opportunities – while simultaneously exploring efforts to protect and conserve this pristine environment.
During my trip, I explored the city of Nome, which is located on the edge of the Bering Sea on the northwest side of the 49th state. Once a gold mining town, Nome is one of the most remote communities in Alaska, with a population of 3,500.
My first stop was the Port of Nome. Joy Baker, Special Projects Director and former Harbormaster of the City of Nome, led me and my staff on a tour and described the economic impact and infrastructure challenges associated with increased Arctic shipping. Although originally from San Antonio, Texas, Joy has worked for the City of Nome for almost 25 years. Her passion for the city was obvious, and she explained how satisfying it was to see the expansion and development of the facility as the successful end result of many years of work and input about additional infrastructure needs in Nome.
After the port tour, we saw U.S. Arctic port infrastructure and vessels, ranging from small gold dredges to industry ships, giving us a better understanding of how the Department of Commerce’s work in implementing the Community Development Quota program in 1992 has been able to grow and further support economic development and achieve sustainable and diversified local economies in the region.
Having enjoyed the outdoors, we moved inside for a roundtable focused on new economic opportunities that are emerging as the impacts of climate change are felt in the Arctic region, including maritime transportation, fishing, and oil and gas activities. Various Alaska Native corporations, industries, and local, state, and federal officials offered a variety of perspectives which gave me a better sense of how the Department of Commerce can further our efforts to support the region.
We wrapped up the day with another productive and engaging roundtable centered on the threats from climate change, which are already impacting some Alaskan communities. These threats include exacerbated erosion and inundation frequency; and the shrinking of sea ice habitat affecting marine mammals.
While we face these challenges, my hope is that the Department can continue to do its part to facilitate trade and investment, assist with the development and management of natural resources, and provide the data and environmental intelligence that are critical to the safety and prosperity of individuals, communities and businesses that are dealing with a changing environment.
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Alaska, and I look forward to strengthening our partnerships in Alaska and across the Arctic region in the coming months and years.