For decades, Alaska has been nicknamed “the Last Frontier.” For the Coast Guard, Alaska is becoming the expanding frontier. As the Arctic ice cap recedes and the northern regions become open to navigation for longer periods, the workload for U.S. Coast Guard District 17, based in Juneau, continues to increase. This additional work comes in several forms: increased shipping via the northern sea route increasing the risk of oil spills; more cruise ship traffic creating the possibility of a mass rescue event; and expansion of Alaska’s already-thriving seafood industry adding to the search and rescue (SAR) mission as well as adding to the requirements for regulatory monitoring. To add to the challenge, this increased workload is occurring in very remote areas well away from current Coast Guard bases where rapidly changing and violent weather conditions along with extreme cold and very rugged terrain make air and sea operations very dangerous. Finally, Alaska contains a very diverse customer base, including 229 of the 564 federal tribes being recognized within the United States. How the Service will meet these new demands in an era of diminishing budgets will be a vexing problem for years to come.
The value of Alaska to the United States cannot be overstated. The region contains trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of oil – approximately 22 percent of the world’s supply. The nation receives 15 percent of its oil from Alaska, with an average of 627,000 barrels of crude passing through the Port of Valdez each day. This volume may grow as drilling interests have increased over the past few years on the North Slope of Alaska. Shell and BP currently have plans in place to commence exploratory drilling operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas as soon as 2011.
In addition to supplying the nation’s need for oil, Alaska is also feeding the nation’s ever-increasing demand for food. Alaska is home to the largest percentage of commercial fisheries in the United States, harvesting 12 million pounds of fish per day – more than 50 percent of the nation’s landings. Patrols by District 17 assets thwart illegal fishing to preserve the fish stocks. The district also engages in a host of international cooperation initiatives with countries such as Canada, China, and Russia to promote safe navigation, protection of fisheries, and environmental stewardship. All these efforts are critical to supporting the United States’ leadership role in the global economy.
“It is important for the Coast Guard to know what’s going on up here,” reflected District 17 Commander Rear Adm. Chris Colvin, as he considered Alaska’s vast 33,000 miles of coastline and the region to the North Pole. “It’s one thing when it is completely covered by ice, but it is another when it’s open water.” During his Aug. 19, 2010, testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Colvin stated, “The Coast Guard has jurisdiction and statutory mission requirements over Arctic ice-covered and ice-diminished waters and the demands associated with those obligations will increase as waterways continue to open and be used more frequently. In addition, the Coast Guard will be at the forefront of efforts to address stewardship requirements in the Arctic consistent with the new National Ocean Policy.”
To better understand the diversity of missions and the operational challenges facing the 17th District, it is useful to consider just a few of the cases and activities they conducted over the past year:
In May, Air Station Kodiak was called upon to conduct a medical evacuation from the M/V Asia Graeca located 500 nautical miles southwest of Shemya along the Aleutian Island chain and 1,300 miles west of Kodiak Island. During the next two days, as the Asia Graeca continued en route to a rendezvous near Shemya, an MH-60J helicopter from AirStat Kodiak traversed from Kodiak through Cold Bay, Dutch Harbor, and Adak to arrive at Earekson Air Force Station on Shemya before making the last leg out to recover the patient 150 miles off shore. Due to the extreme distances involved, the entire evolution required multiple C-130 Hercules aircraft and MH-60 Jayhawk sorties and aircrews. In the end, the Jayhawks logged 34 flight hours and the Hercules 43 flight hours in order to save the life of the stricken mariner.
In March, at the peak of a harsh winter, Air Station Sitka joined forces with the Alaska Army National Guard and the Alaska State Troopers to look for a missing hiker attempting to cross the Meade Glacier, 50 miles north of Juneau. The last radio contact with the 29-year-old extreme sportsman indicated that he could not make it back to the previously coordinated rendezvous point because he was exhausted and hadn’t eaten in four days. Weather was poor with low cloud ceilings, restricted visibility, and winds gusting to 37 knots. During the first two days of the mission, helicopters from the Coast Guard and National Guard were repeatedly turned back due to heavy snow squalls and fog. On the third day, the Coast Guard Jayhawk located the hiker, who had sought refuge by building a snow cave, as 27 inches of snow had fallen on the glacier during the previous two days. The Jayhawk crew marked the area with smoke and vectored the ski-equipped National Guard helicopter in to recover the hiker.
These cases are just two examples of high-risk missions that occur routinely in Alaska, missions where any miscalculation in operations or logistics would be catastrophic to rescuers and victims alike. “We are frequently challenged in responding to a SAR along the Aleutian chain, which requires multiple aircraft and aircrews, a little luck, a lot of skill and courage,” Colvin said. “When I send these young men and women out in these conditions, I must consider and prepare for the worst-case scenario in which an aircraft goes down. Who is going to rescue the rescuers? The answer is we must rescue ourselves – ‘self rescue posture.”
In addition to SAR, the district supported international and multilateral organizations, studies, and projects. During the summer of 2010, District 17 coordinated with Canada to better understand the Arctic seabed and collect detailed scientific data to establish critical lines of demarcation for the extended continental shelf. The two countries sent the CGC icebreaker Healy and the Canadian coast guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent into the Arctic region to map the seabed. The plan, which is being executed at the time of this writing, is for one icebreaker to ensure the waterway is clear while the other does the detailed submerged mapping. This information will be critical to ongoing international discussions regarding claims of sovereignty by several nations to sections of the Arctic.
In addition to its mission execution, District 17 is heavily involved in community outreach efforts. Operation Arctic Crossroads, now in its third year, provides much needed medical care to remote communities. This year the operation provided medical community outreach in eight villages surrounding Kotzebue, Alaska. The team, composed of USCG, U.S. Air Force, Army National Guard, Air National Guard, and U.S. Public Health Service medical and veterinary teams, treated a combined 535 patients and 326 animals. As part of Arctic Crossroads, the Coast Guard conducted a separate three-day Alaska Native Diversity, Education and Recruitment Outreach in northern Alaska in the fall of 2009. The outreach focused on promoting boating safety, Coast Guard operations, and career opportunities to more than 2,500 elementary, middle school, high school, and college students. The program is designed to develop deeper and lasting relationships between the northern Alaska community and the Coast Guard and provides an awareness of the service and future opportunities for the students. The district’s personnel are also engaged in community outreach. The National Military Family Association recognized a Juneau Coast Guard member – Petty Officer 1st Class Aaron Udland and his wife and four children, who are deeply involved in their community and raising money and awareness for the American Cancer Society.
Despite the demanding operational conditions, the 17th District is also committed to “green” initiatives. The USCG Civil Engineering Unit in Juneau installed an electric wind turbine at Station Juneau. The 26-unit Coast Guard housing project in Cordova was recognized with the LEED® Gold certification standard.
As if the operational demands within Alaska were not enough, out-of-district support was also a key part of the past year. The CGC Sycamore and its crew of 42 joined more than 70 other District 17 crewmembers who deployed in support of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. The Sycamore joined other Coast Guard vessels from around the country and assisted in oil recovery using their on board spilled oil recovery system.
Also in support of the Deepwater Horizon response, the CGC Maple transited from Sitka to San Francisco to cover West Coast aids to navigation missions following the deployment of the West Coast’s only heavy-lift buoy tenders to the Gulf. With the deployment of two of the district’s four 225-foot buoy tenders, the CGC Spar was unable to conduct a planned mission to the Arctic this summer.
Finally, the CGC Long Island, based in Valdez, deployed to the Straits of Juan de Fuca between Washington state and Canada as part of the security force for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics Games. The USCG, along with the U.S. Navy and Canadian forces, coordinated to provide maritime security for the Olympics. The Long Island was deployed for 45 days and transited more than 2,500 nautical miles for this mission.
The role of the Coast Guard in Alaska is expanding rapidly. As the service commandant, Adm. Robert J. Papp, whose first tour following commissioning from the Coast Guard Academy 35 years ago brought him to Adak and service on the CGC Ironwood, stated in an August 2010 interview, “We certainly have responsibilities up there to patrol that water. Right now we don’t have the resources to do it. I need to identify those resources, let the administration know what we need to be able to take care of … those responsibilities up there, and then work with the administration and Congress to try and get the resources.”
Papp’s success in obtaining the right resources for Alaska is important not just to the Coast Guard, but to the nation as a whole. In the meantime, the men and women of USCG District 17 will continue to meet their responsibilities as best they can with their skill and courage pitted against the harsh environment of Alaska and the Arctic.
Chris Doane and Dr. Joe DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers. Both are adjunct professors at the Joint Forces Staff College. DiRenzo is also an associate professor at American Military University.
This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.