Meet President Obama’s point man for Alaska

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Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee, says he's optimistic about future prospects for tourism and science in the Arctic, but more cautious about the opportunities for drilling. (Erik Hill/Alaska Dispatch News)
Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee, says he’s optimistic about future prospects for tourism and science in the Arctic, but more cautious about the opportunities for drilling. (Erik Hill/Alaska Dispatch News)

WASHINGTON — Alaska leaders have been making use of a new Washington connection lately: the man in charge of President Barack Obama’s year-old initiative to coordinate federal activity in the Arctic. 

Mark Brzezinski has been tasked with ferrying through the pile of promises Obama brought along when he spent three days in Alaska last year.

Brzezinski took the helm in August as executive director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, a White House initiative to oversee the many agencies of the federal government with a hand in the U.S. Arctic. The president’s chief of science and technology, John Holdren, chairs the committee.

For many outside Alaska, America’s Arctic may as well be a foreign land. An area of land larger than Texas, Alaska’s Arctic region is home to140,000 people who live in a climate and culture unique in the United States.

And for the remainder of the Obama presidency, Brzezinski is the White House’s ambassador to the Arctic.

He knows something of the task: His prior position under the Obama administration was ambassador to Sweden, where his passion for the Arctic was realized.

“The reason why they brought in a former U.S. ambassador into this slot is because of the engagement piece, especially,” Brzezinski said in an interview last week at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, steps from the west wing of the White House. And his office has seen quite a few visitors from Alaska recently.

First impressions

Richard Beneville, the new mayor of Nome, met with Brzezinski last week to talk about the city’s efforts to develop a deep-water port.

“Personally, I found him a delightful man. The kind of guy you’d like to go to a ballgame with. He’s very approachable and willing and receptive,” Beneville said.

And Brzezinski’s plum position — and location — goes far toward helping some of those Alaskan visitors feel heard.

“The best secret about the Washington-Alaskan relationship” is how often Alaskans come through D.C., Brzezinski said.

Brzezinski has left good impressions all over Alaska. Alaskans who have met with him recently have called him “knowledgeable,” “passionate,” “smart,” “energetic” and “hardworking.”

They also call him “Ambassador;” it being the sort of title that sticks to a person even after they’ve left the position.

“I have found him to be a very intelligent, very genuine and very kind human being. It’s a tremendous asset to Alaska to have somebody like him in a position like that,” said Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who has met with Brzezinski in Washington and Alaska.

While ambassador to Sweden, from November 2011 to July 2015, Brzezinski spent a lot of time in the Arctic, drawn to a life that is “a balance between humankind and nature in order to survive, let alone thrive,” he said.

Brzezinski made a series of YouTube videos about the Arctic with a well-known Swedish actor, Felix Herngren. “Neither of us are scientists. But both of us wanted to learn about the Arctic,” he said.

And when he hosted American Nobel Prize winners at the ambassador’s house in Sweden, he served Swedish-style moose meatballs — a Swedish moose he killed himself, Brzezinski said. “And they loved it, because it’s a healthy, organic food,” he beamed.

Brzezinski, who has 6-year-old daughter named Aurora, has never hunted in Alaska, but did so regularly in Sweden, he said.

Family ties

It’s a skill he learned from his mother in Northern Virginia. As a 14-year-old, Brzezinski served deer he and his brother got that fall to Deng Xiaoping, the vice premier of China. “And he loved it!” Brzezinski said.

The Chinese official came for dinner because in 1979, his father, Zbigniew Brzezinski, spearheaded the normalizing of relations with China as President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. He followed that with a long career in national security politics, which continues. Zbigniew is an octogenarian with more than 80,000 Twitter followers.

His sister, Mika Brzezinski, co-hosts “Morning Joe” on MSNBC and has written a few best-sellers. His mother is a successful sculpture artist whose medium is trees and whose methods are chainsaw-centric.

“I’m proud of them,” Mark Brzezinski said.

A close family, they all spend a lot of time boosting each other’s work on social media, and Mika has featured her parents on her show.

“What I saw with my father is that public service can make a difference, that ideas can make a difference … I have public service in my bones,” Brzezinski said.

His mother instilled a love of the environment in him and his siblings, Brzezinski said. “We grew up with a mom who would gut and clean and butcher her own deer in our backyard in McLean, Virginia.”

‘Openness and space’

The White House envoy to the Arctic first visited Alaska on a hiking trip with his brother Ian in the early 1990s, he said. His first impression was of the “openness and the space. That’s what I think of when I think of the Arctic and Alaska,” Brzezinski said. “And also the balance that exists between the people and the environment.”

Brzezinski was in Anchorage for several days last week, where he took in a flurry of meetings on Native concerns and water issues. One of the meetings was with the Alaska Federal Executive Association, a group of all the heads of federal branches in Alaska.

Brzezinski said he is aware of the strained relationship between the federal and state government when it comes to land and animal management in Alaska.

“People of principle can disagree. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t sit down and talk with each other to see if we can come up with a rational way forward. That is totally possible,” he said.

Federal policy aimed at protecting the Arctic has decades of history, bolstered in 2013 with the release of a federal Arctic Research Plan, a revision begun under the George W. Bush administration.

Brzezinski plans only limited trips to Alaska during his tenure, citing budget limitations. But he wants to make sure other top federal officials visit over the next year.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx met with Alaska Native leaders in November. And Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will attend a field hearing Sen. Lisa Murkowski is holding Feb. 15 in Bethel.

In 2017, the U.S. will host a ministerial event in Fairbanks to close out its chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

More Cabinet secretaries will be headed to Alaska in spring and summer, Brzezinski said. “Stay tuned … these will be interesting and valuable for the people of Alaska.”

But Brzezinski isn’t just chief facilitator of friendly conversation. The White House made a lot of promises during Obama’s visit to Alaska, and his primary responsibility is to make sure they are realized.

Each one is in a spreadsheet on Brzezinski’s computer, sorted by agency, attached to a name, notated with timelines and milestones, he said. “Some are smaller, some are larger, but we are working on a full front track to get them all done,” Brzezinski said.

Several have come through, but much more remains.

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a $9 million construction grant for nine Alaska Native villages to build water and sanitation infrastructure — bolstered by 25 percent state matching funds.

The Department of Agriculture issued a $10 million grant to 10 villages to offset high energy bills.

And the Energy Department invested $4 million in a grant competition aimed at advancing sustainable and alternative energy by providing technical assistance grants for remote communities.

In October, the administration released a catalog detailing federal programs to aid communities hit by coastal erosion, which Brzezinski called “a starting point.”

“I think he’s great … and other people I have talked to have been real impressed with the work that he’s done,” said Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, who has met with Brzezinski in Washington, D.C., and Alaska.

But when it comes to many of Obama’s promises, “we’ll have to wait for the new federal budget” and work with the Alaska congressional delegation, she said. The president’s proposed budget is expected Feb. 9, and from there, Congress holds the purse-strings.

And through interaction with the administration, Kitka said, she has “realized that there is a lot of education of the steering committee that needs to occur” when it comes to village relocation issues — the dangers, timelines and available options.

Asked about the lack of funding available to move villages threatened by coastal erosion — costs could run into the billions — Brzezinski said  “the answer first and foremost is to listen and engage with village leaders” and noted the administration is keeping a close eye on the situation.

Icebreakers

In a discussion with Alaska Dispatch News reporters and editors during his trip last week, Brzezinski said he hopes to see a budget request from the White House that reflects a dedication to the Arctic and Alaska.

“I’d love to see an icebreaker funded,” he added.

The increasing ship traffic in the Arctic due to melting ice is one of Brzezinski’s top priorities.

In August, the cruise ship Crystal Serenity will take its maiden voyage through the Northwest Passage, ferrying 1,000 passengers on a monthlong Arctic cruise.

The cruise is “a metaphor for the future,” Brzezinski said. “I think tourism is going to increase in the Arctic, because it’s so compelling and interesting to people.”

This summer, federal and state agencies and several countries will take part in a live search and rescue practice exercise — the follow-up to a “table top” exercise that took place in October.

Thus far, relations between Arctic countries have remained friendly — the U.S. Coast Guard is the only branch of the U.S. military still working with Russia.

Brzezinski chooses his words carefully when it comes to national security issues in the Arctic, and swivels to focus on “science diplomacy” — research collaboration with other countries, including Russia.

The area’s strategic importance came to light in World War II, and in recent months, Russian military activities there have grabbed headlines.

It is important to understand the Arctic activities of other nations, “and it’s important to emphasize that we’re not indifferent or passive to what others are doing there. But we want to be a constructive, peaceful collaborator with others in the Arctic,” he said. And the U.S. should be “very clear that any militarization of the Arctic is counterproductive and counter to international cooperation that so underpins the Arctic Council,” Brzezinski said.

‘Big year on the Arctic’

While Brzezinski is bullish about future prospects for tourism and science in the Arctic, he’s more cautious about the opportunities for drilling. Members of Alaska’s congressional delegation have placed the blame for Shell’s decision to pull out of the Alaska Arctic on the Obama administration’s permit delays.

But for now, the low price of oil doesn’t justify the high cost of Arctic drilling. “I hope in the future we are less reliant on fossil fuels, not more reliant on fossil fuels,” Brzezinski said.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t use this hiatus, this period, to zero in on what a responsible commercial context in the Arctic would look like,” Brzezinski said. The oil is there, but “Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf (of Mexico) upped the ante regarding what can happen if there is not effective management leading up to any kind of responsible and sustainable resource development,” Brzezinski said.

With one year left of the Obama presidency, Brzezinski’s time to make an impact is limited.

Brzezinski said he hopes to look back on his 18-month time with the committee and “say a serious and responsible way forward on the Arctic was really spearheaded by President Obama.”

“I think 2016 is going to be a big year on the Arctic and we’re just really ascending right now,” Brzezinski said.

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