Borough establishes climate resilience commission

Jun 18, 2020

This photo shows the evening sun on the Kenai River near Soldotna Creek Park in June 2020 in Soldotna, Alaska.
Credit Elizabeth Earl / KDLL

The borough assembly voted to establish a commission on climate resilience and security on Tuesday without much opposition.

The commission will be advisory and include nine members with experience in at least one of the commission’s areas of focus representing the various regions of the peninsula. They will recommend policies for the borough on items like reducing waste going to the landfill, improving energy efficiency, increasing local use of renewable energy, and improving food security, among other areas. The commission will meet once per month and collaborate with the borough, utilities, communities, and other entities to adapt or mitigate significant changes to the environment, according to the ordinance.

The commission came from a combination of grassroots efforts and a recommendation in the borough’s 2019 comprehensive plan. During the Tuesday meeting, the assembly heard more than a dozen people testify supporting it, with reasons ranging from food security to wildlife and tourism.

For Sue Mauger, a fisheries scientist with Cook Inletkeeper, it’s a matter of urgency. Last summer’s soaring temperatures pushed into the streams, and she recorded water temperatures in line with predictions for fifty years from now. That’s bad for fish, and it’s not the only impact peninsula residents are feeling.

"As a reminder, in just the last 12 months, borough residents have health with wildfire related highway closures, extreme drought designations, drinking water shortages, the collapse of local and state economies, and a global health emergency, just in the last 12 months," she said. "...We will experience all these things again. When it unclear, but their inevitability is certain. As I see it, the goal of this commission would be to provide tools and solutions and resiliency in the face of this certainty."

For Hannah LeFleur of Seward, it’s a matter of future business. LeFleur is the operations manager at Kayak Adventures Worldwide in Seward and is part of the Seward Wilderness Collective, both of which depend on intact ecosystems to attract tourists.

"Tourists visit to experience our wild places, they’re here to see our wildlife, fish for salmon, and enjoy the outdoors in so many other ways," she said. "The common theme is all of these visitors and all the related spending, and in my case, my livelihood and those of many other tour operators on the peninsula, rely on our ability to manage these resources from clean water to clean air through road construction and landfill use. The resilience and security commission will help safeguard all of the fragile systems that we as Alaskans and our visitors rely on."

The ordinance, sponsored by assembly members Tyson Cox, Willy Dunne and Hal Smalley and assembly president Kelly Cooper, also received support from city councils in all the major cities of the borough and the Planning Commission. Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said that support, in combination with the public testimony, meant the assembly should support passing it. Plus, many of the items on the commission’s charter were already happening in the borough.

"In one sense I sit back and I say, are we not just creating another commission to advise us about things that are already being done, but I would say that there are things that we don’t deal with every day that the experts need to deal with, environmentally," Pierce said. "And so from an environmental perspective I think that there’s some validity and some importance that we need to take seriously and do what we can."

One note of concern was about cost. The borough is strapped for cash, like many municipalities, and didn’t want to spend more on another commission. The commissioners will be unpaid volunteers, and will elect their own recording secretary so the borough staff doesn’t have to be there to record the meetings. That helps keep the cost down to virtually nothing. The members will also seek their own funding to implement projects.

Cooper said the commission provides a great opportunity to work with experts and implement some changes.

"We have experts through this entire peninsula and the state as we just heard that are wanting to say, ‘Listen, we know your plate is full. We are trying to put downward pressure on the budget and not have the staffing,’" Cooper said. "Our staff is so… their hands are so full. We have all these experts and all of these solutions and all of this opportunity to help us get there in their advisory and their voluntary, I say yes, let’s take them on."

Many other municipalities in the Lower 48 and Alaska already have climate resilience commissions. Anchorage has established a Climate Action Plan, and Juneau has had a Commission on Sustainability since 2007. Dr. Nancy Fresco, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told the assembly that multiple other municipalities are forming commissions like this and could work together on grants, research, and other initiatives to make it more efficient.

The ordinance passed 7-2, with assembly members Norm Blakeley and Jesse Bjorkman voting against it. Blakeley cited concerns about the communities of Sterling and Funny River not being involved in the discussions leading to the ordinance, and Bjorkman said the commission’s work may be more effective outside government.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.