Kotzebue residents want a say if Arctic traffic brings the military back to town. 'This is our table'
Concerns about national security are heating up in the rapidly changing Arctic. In 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard opened a seasonal airbase in Kotzebue. The community was once home to a permanent U.S. Air Force station, but that closed in 1983 as the Cold War wound down.
In recent years, more fighter jets have been based in Alaska, cold weather training for soldiers here has increased, and an effort to provide the U.S. Coast Guard with a new, state-of-the-art icebreaker is underway. Russia lies about 250 miles west of Kotzebue, and conflict with Ukraine has only fueled discussion about whether a more permanent military presence along Alaska's west coast is both needed and warranted.
“This is our table,” said Vice President of Lands for NANA Qaulluq Cravalho. “We have to make sure that we're there when it comes to policy making decisions because there is activity happening.”
NANA is one of the largest Alaska Native corporations in the state. Cravalho is also a member of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. She said that any military buildup in Northwest Alaska should include input from Alaska Natives.
“People can think of the Arctic as this pristine place where there's no activity happening, and that might be relatively true. On the U.S. side there’s not as much activity. But on the Russian side there is, and all of our food resources go over there and come back,” Cravalho said. “So it's all one environment. There's a lot of risk associated with it, and so how do we make sure we're at the table to define what it looks like?”
In recent years, the Arctic has seen a drastic increase in industrial marine traffic in the region. According to the Arctic Council, marine traffic increased by 44% through the Northwest Passage between 2013 and 2019. As a self-described Coastal Iñupiaq, Cravalho has concerns about what more ships and a beefed up military presence might mean for subsistence resources in the region. People here are heavily reliant on marine mammals and fish that provide a sustained food source.
“When you're harvesting, when you're participating in these activities, this is how you learn our culture and our language,” she said. “ This is how it's passed down generation to generation, because of the close relationship with the land and the water. It's a primary means not only to provide sustenance for ourselves and our people in our communities. It's also a primary means for our culture to continue.”
That culture has become a defining feature in Nate Kotch’s life since he arrived here from Hawaii in his early 20s. “So it was certainly a culture shock to me to some degree,” Kotch said. The U.S. Air Force stationed him here in the 1970s, and he is one of the last remaining Kotzebue residents that remembers when there was an active military station in the community. Today it functions as a long range radar site, with minimal full-time civilian staff.
“It's taken time for me to even learn what the culture really is in the community,” Kotch said. “I mean, the Native community, you know? What are their values, what are their needs? You know, what are they looking for?”
After his time with the Air Force, he married into an Iñupiaq family and spent 27 years on Kotzebue’s city council.
Kotch said that if the military ever decided to resurrect a base here, the community would need to be involved “because if that doesn't happen that way, then there's going to be a negative impact.”
In October 2022, the United States rolled out a new National Strategy for the Arctic Region. In a video posted to Twitter, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken included national security as one of four main pillars of a new National Security Strategy for the Arctic. “We have no higher priority than defending our country and our people and securing the Arctic is key to that,” Blinken said.
Currently, a military buildup is just a discussion and no decisions have been made to move forward. There is talk of basing Coast Guard personnel in Kotzebue permanently. There has also been talk of developing a naval base in Kotzebue, complete with a deep water port.
In early August, Kotzebue Sound bustled with small boats. The fishermen inside lined up at a handful of docks, waiting to offload chum salmon. Overhead, small commuter planes shuttled cargo and passengers to nearby remote villages. Cravalho said that if the military does come this far north, the community will be ready.
“This community is not unfamiliar with it,” Cravalho said. “We've had a base here in the past. Certainly there's always that risk of the community changing, so it's how we interact with that change that's really important, right? You know, the tools and types of infrastructure needed to be present here have really changed over time.”
Kotzebue is set back from the open Chukchi Sea by nearly 70 miles of shallow, protective water in Kotzebue Sound. So even though marine traffic in the Arctic is increasing, it can feel far away here.
What 85-year-old Elder James McClellan is delighted to focus on is the successful chum fishery. He’s spent many afternoons sitting on the beach, peering through binoculars as boats pull in to offload their catch. He said that 2022 was the first summer that he didn’t fish commercially.
“I just like living from the country,” McClellan said with a smile. "It's good. It keeps you healthy.”
The night before, McClellan said, he’d had salmon for dinner. “Oh, it was good! Fried salmon, fried potatoes and onions, and boy it was good.”
As McClellan scanned the horizon, what he couldn’t see is beyond Kotzebue Sound: a growing traffic jam of industrial ships, a potential for increased conflict with a foreign neighbor, and the unknown impacts of a changing climate on food resources, including the chum salmon.
This ongoing series is made possible through a grant from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund.