Speech: International Polar Year Conference

Last edited 09/05/2019

Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes

Montreal, Canada

Good Morning. Thank you, Dr. Harrison, for opening the conference this morning, and for that generous introduction. And a special thank you to Minister John Duncan and Janet King who along with their staff have put on such an outstanding conference.

The theme of this year's conference – From Knowledge to Action – could not come at a more appropriate time. We all know that Polar ecosystems and landscapes are experiencing significant changes, including rapidly eroding shorelines, melting ground ice, diminishing sea ice cover, thawing permafrost, and rising sea levels. At the same time, we are seeing an increase in development and activity in the Arctic, from infrastructure, to conventional and renewable energy, to shipping and transportation – and even more is planned for the future. Today, more than ever, policy makers need access to relevant, reliable, easily accessible scientific information about the Polar Regions.

In the United States, we have made “getting the Arctic right” a priority. Alaska – America's Arctic – is a tremendous national resource and we in the U.S. Department of the Interior have a special affinity toward it since we manage the large majority of land and coastal resources in the Alaskan Arctic. This includes the 19 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, operated by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve, operated by our Bureau of Land Management, and the massive Artic National Parks, including Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley and Noatak National Preserve. In addition, in our Arctic Oceans, US law gives the Interior Department – through our Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and our Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement – primary responsibility for offshore development in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, working closely with NOAA, the US Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency. And it is our Department – the Interior Department – that works most closely with Alaska Natives through our Bureau of Indian Affairs. Finally, our Department includes a premier science agency – the United States Geological Survey– which, along with NOAA and the National Science Foundation, brings decades of deep scientific experience in working in Polar environments – both in the South Pole and in the Arctic. USGS has led the pioneering work for the US government regarding polar bears, walruses, and many other sensitive Arctic species.

For our Department, then, as land and wildlife managers, and as the Department that issues permits for the development of Arctic resources, scientific questions associated with the Arctic are not only of academic interest. We need to make decisions about proposed activities in the Arctic, and they need to be informed, science-based decisions. We need science to answer the tough questions that face us as decisionmakers. And we need to get it right, because the Arctic is an unforgiving place. As the theme of this conference calls for, we need to move “From Knowledge to Action.”

This has been a key priority for President Obama, who has taken two key steps that illustrate his Administration's commitment to make the right decisions in the Arctic. First, through the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. has elevated its commitment to the Arctic Council. Never before has a U.S. Secretary of State participated in an Arctic Council ministerial. Last May, in Nuuk, Secretary Clinton led the U.S. delegation, joined by Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar and me. The U.S. sees the Arctic Council as an international body that is addressing timely issues that matter, and that is taking up science in a way that addresses real-world needs, ranging from search and rescue to oil spill response.

The second action taken by the President was establishing, through an Executive Order signed on July 12th of last year, a high-level, interagency working group that the President charged to facilitate coordinated, science-based domestic energy development and permitting in Alaska. The President asked me, as the Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department, to serve as the chair of the group. Again: “From Knowledge to Action.”

So how do we do it?

Let me offer four points for your consideration.

First, we need to keep doing what so many in this room have devoted their entire careers to – improving scientific knowledge about the Polar Regions. Second, in doing so, we need to ensure that policy-makers have access to the science necessary to inform sound decisions. Third, we have to adopt an integrated approach that transcends jurisdictional boundaries and takes cumulative impacts into account. Finally, we must take into account the knowledge and needs of indigenous communities.

I will discuss each, briefly, in turn.

1. Continuing to Improve Scientific Knowledge About the Polar Regions

An ever-growing body of knowledge about the Polar Regions already exists, in no small part thanks to the efforts of past International Polar Years that promote collaboration across boundaries and the sharing of scientific information. Going forward, we need to continue expanding what we know about the Poles and their unique ecosystems and cultural resources, marine environments, sea currents, ice migration and weather patterns.

In the United States, we are taking a number of steps toward that goal. We have a dedicated team of scientists in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in coordination with NOAA, the Arctic Research Commission, and the National Science Foundation, who are working to build our understanding of the environment, resources, geology and culture of the Arctic. BOEM, which is responsible for offshore resource management and leasing, has funded more than $360 million in research related to the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf over the last four decades. And USGS has an Alaska Science Center that is collecting important baseline data about the Alaska Arctic.

USGS also contributes to Antarctic research and is the keeper of the U.S. Antarctic Resource Center, which houses a collection of Antarctic aerial photography, maps, charts, satellite imagery and technical reports produced by Antarctic Treaty nations in support of their activities in the Antarctic.

We are also looking ahead and thinking strategically about future science needs. Led by Fran Ulmer, the Arctic Research Commission – a Congressionally-chartered Commission -- is working closely with the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee to pull together and seek to coordinate research that 15 different federal agencies are sponsoring on Arctic matters. And our National Science Foundation is putting together, as we speak, a new five-year plan for addressing science needs in the Arctic, as a complement to its huge commitment to on-going Antarctic research.

Finally, the United States is involved in a number of collaborative international initiatives to improve scientific information about the Arctic. As we are taking stock of our own scientific capacity in the Arctic region, we are very encouraged by the Arctic Council's dedication to the Sustaining Arctic Observing Network. The need for a well-coordinated, ongoing monitoring network in the region is paramount, as is free, open, and timely access to high-quality data.

2. Linking Science to Policy-Making

Continuing to build our body of scientific knowledge about the Poles is paramount – but it is only the first step. Our second – and very important – charge as policy-makers and scientists, is to ensure that there is a strong, meaningful link between polar science and the decisions facing policymakers in the Arctic and Antarctic.

This is one of the charges that President Obama gave to the Interagency Working Group on Energy and Permitting in Alaska. As chair of the Working Group, I am partnering with Fran Ulmer, the Chair of the U.S. Arctic Commission, to advance this mission by starting a dialogue between federal policy makers and the scientific community on how to optimize the availability of relevant scientific information for federal decision-makers. We held two Science and Decision-making workshops with members of the federal government and are preparing to host a third workshop later this month, which will expand the discussion to include state, local, and tribal government representatives and members of industry, academia, and non-governmental organizations.

3. Adopting an Integrated, Holistic Approach

One of the key themes that emerged from our first Science and Decisionmaking workshop is the need to adopt an integrated, holistic approach to decision-making in the Arctic. The Arctic's ice shelf and coastal, terrestrial and marine ecosystems are changing too fast for sector-by-sector, project-by-project, or issue-by-issue management. Getting it right in the Arctic calls for a more integrated approach if we expect to protect natural resources and subsistence values while still operating commercial activities.

This echoes a theme that Secretary Salazar and I heard in Nuuk last summer, where the Arctic Council agreed to convene a team of ecosystem-based management, or EBM experts to advise the Council on a more integrated approach to cultural, ecological, and commercial management interests in the region. The Arctic EBM Experts Group is up and running and just had a very successful meeting in Sweden last week and is continuing to foster greater cooperation and develop a body of best practices for adaptive management in a rapidly changing environment. Staff from the Department of the Interior will continue to work closely with our other partners on the Arctic Council's EBM Expert Group to promote the development of guidelines and capacity to coordinate the implementation of EBM in the Arctic.

This effort has also helped to inform important domestic initiatives in the United States that are aiming to create integrated, transparent decision-making processes. Most notably, the Interagency Working Group has recently partnered with the multi-agency National Ocean Council to develop an integrated, interagency management framework for the lands and waters of the Alaska Arctic that will rely heavily upon the principles of EBM.

We have also established a multi-stakeholder Landscape Conservation Cooperative for the Arctic, which is a self-directed conservation partnership among the federal, state, and local government agencies, Tribes, nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions and other entities operating within Arctic Alaska and northern Canada. Through the Arctic LCC, land and resource management agencies are working together to develop scientific capacity to address climate change and other stressors to Arctic wildlife species and habitats in an integrated fashion.

4. Meeting the Critical Needs of Indigenous Communities

The rapid changes underway in the Arctic underscore the urgency of effective and far-sighted policies to ensure the health and welfare of the native communities. It is critical that we continue to hear directly from these communities about their needs and concerns about issues like pollution, changing environments, and the health of marine resources that provide critical sources of subsistence for many of these communities.

It is also important that we learn from their traditional knowledge about the environment, marine mammal populations, and other natural and cultural resources, and integrate that information into our scientific and environmental analysis. Oftentimes, traditional knowledge is the best information available.

Agencies across the federal government are working hard to advance a serious dialogue with native communities, and once again, the Working Group is an invaluable tool –as our group is specifically tasked to “facilitate coordination with local communities, governments, tribes, co-management organizations, and similar Alaska Native organizations.”

The Arctic continues to be rich in mysteries that can only be solved with pioneering exploration and research. It is up to us to carry the torch for this important work, to ensure that it forms the basis of sound policy decisions, that it is not limited by jurisdictional boundaries or done on a piecemeal basis, and that it takes into account the needs and knowledge of the communities that are most impacted by it.

Thank you for your time.

Was this page helpful?

Please provide a comment