NE17 information session set for Dec. 7

Navy, Alaskan Command will be in Cordova to answer questions

Military officials will be in Cordova Dec. 7 to discuss the joint training exercise Northern Edge 2017, slated to take place May 1-12 in the Gulf of Alaska.

The information briefing before the Cordova Chamber of Commerce at noon is open only to board members and businesses, but the Cordova City Council meeting at 6 p.m. is open to the public

and will include a follow-up question and answer session.

“Our goal with these engagements is to not only provide accurate information about what will actually occur during the exercise, but to begin a continuous exchange of information about the exercise with residents of Alaska,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Anastasia Wasem, director of public affairs for the Alaskan NORAD Region Alaskan Command, 11th Air Force Commander, Alaskan Command Air Force Element.

“There will be an informational briefing at both the Dec. 7 Chamber of Commerce and City Council meetings in Cordova. We will have three representatives at the meetings, two from Alaskan Command based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and one with U.S. Pacific Fleet as a Navy representative and environmental expert,” Wasem said.

The Cordova meetings are two of 16 community engagement events that NE17 officials have planned throughout Alaska between now and the scheduled start of the exercises.

Community concerns include the timing of NE17, which is scheduled to end just before the opening of the 2017 salmon gillnet fishing season on the Copper River Flats, and during the 27th annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, set for May 4-7.

“There is a reason that Cordova plans the Copper River commercial salmon opener on or about the 15th of May, and the Shorebird Festival for the first weekend in May – this is the beginning of the migration of the hundreds of species that migrate north for the summer,” said Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin.

“While we recognize the necessity of conducting training exercises, the timing couldn’t be worse. Our request is straightforward and was unanimously supported by city council: Conduct the exercises in winter and conduct them as far from coastal communities as possible.”

Northern Edge is a biennial training exercise conducted in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, which includes areas within the Gulf of Alaska, as well as land and airspace within the state.

NE17 includes participation from Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Marine Corps Forces Pacific and U.S. Army Pacific, among others, Wasem said.

“The exercise is planned to include approximately 170 aircraft and two naval ships,”
Wasem said. “During the next six months of community engagement outreach events, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Alaskan Command representatives will provide information about the Northern Edge exercise, answer questions on planned training activities and share steps being taken to reduce risks and to mitigate for any environmental impacts.”

Lt. Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, USAF Commander, Alaska Command, of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, wrote a letter last month to Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin regarding the upcoming community engagement meeting.

“We want to ensure that the residents of Alaska and especially those in your community, have the information they need to understand the full scope of the exercise,” Wilsbach said. “Alaska’s size enables the military to have the largest air-ground training complex in the United States. The Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC), is strategically significant and has tremendous training value due to its expansive collocated air and land ranges, linked to the sea at the Gulf of Alaska,” Wilsbach said.

According to Wilsbach, environmental protection is an integral component of preparations.

“The 2013 JPARC Environmental Impact Statement evaluated potential environmental impacts of aerial and land-based military training activities in or near Alaska. More recently, the U.S. Navy evaluated maritime activities, including those that are part of future Northern Edge exercises, in its 2016 Gulf of Alaska final supplemental EIS. It should also be noted that the at-sea portions of NE17 will occur within the Temporary Maritime Activities Area, which begins more than 12 nautical miles away from the shore.

We look forward to hearing from the community and to providing information to address any concerns,” said Wilsbach.

Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin said he is looking forward to the 15-minute military presentation.

“On behalf of the community, we really appreciate their efforts to explain the exercises and listen to suggestions and concerns. I look forward to the community’s response to it. Community members are encouraged to attend to listen and voice questions, suggestions and concerns,” Koplin said.

The Cordova City Council voiced concerns in June regarding NE17 training exercises, and voted to approve a resolution which, in part, requested the Navy to, “refrain from using live ordinance or sonar in any marine protected area, including NOAA Fisheries Marine Protected Areas, State Marine Protected Areas and Habitat Areas of Particular Concern.”

The resolution, which passed June 22, is posted on the City of Cordova’s website.

It has support from the community, Cordova District Fishermen United, the Eyak Preservation Council and others who worked with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Rep, Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, and other coastal community entities to encourage relocation and retiming of the exercises, which are scheduled to occur within as little as 12 miles of some communities.

“Murkowski has been particularly insistent that the Navy engage coastal Alaskan communities as they plan the exercises. I look forward to seeing the alternatives that the ALCOM team brings to the table,” Koplin said.

The Eyak Preservation Council, meanwhile, has scheduled informational meetings at noon and 5 p.m. on Dec. 5, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, said Emily Stolarcyk, program manager for the EPC. The presentations are scheduled to last approximately 30-45 minutes and childcare is provided.

“As a community who depends on the ocean to provide a healthy, abundant resource, we cannot condone their actions,” Stolarcyk said. “Our ask is moderate – just change the time and location. We aren’t saying don’t do it at all. Military interests must balance the needs of the local communities – it’s a two-way street. What the Navy is doing can’t put our jobs and food at risk.”

The Navy and ALCOM will hold additional talks with other communities in Alaska, including the Seward City Council on Dec. 9 and the Sitka City Council on Dec. 13. Community meetings were also held Dec. 5, in Homer and Dec. 6, in Kodiak.

ALCOM and Navy representatives also are scheduled to speak at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium Jan. 20-23, in Anchorage; the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting Jan. 30 – Feb. 7, in Seattle; the Alaska Forum on the Environment Feb. 6-10, in Anchorage; and are also planning to meet with the Sunaq Tribe and the Native Village of Eyak regarding NE17.

“Outreach is critical for listening to concerns and answering community questions about Northern Edge. We want to assure residents that protecting the environment is a top priority and a vital part of our training and implementation plan. We also need the public to know that Northern Edge provides invaluable, vital hands-on training to prepare our troops for the joint land-air-maritime environment,” Wilsbach said.

To view the Navy’s EIS click on to www.goaeis.com; click directly to the link to the EIS table of contents here: http://goaeis.com/Documents/GOAFinalEISOEISMay2011.aspx

To view the City of Cordova’s Resolution 06-16-24 U.S. Navy Training Exercises, click on to 

http://cityofcordova.net/government/mayor-council/resolutions

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She's been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She's lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at cgibbens-stimson@thecordovatimes.com or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.