‘The Man’ Odd out: Svalbard’s governor retires after a decade of rescues, rejections, receptions and bear executions

ingerøleaves

Any governor claiming to be an anti-politician is wading in bear droppings. In the case of Odd Olsen Ingerø, that’s literally true.

Ingerø, 65, is ending a 10-year reign as Svalbard’s governor and a career of more than 40 years in law enforcement on Thursday. There is, however, a decent chance he’ll still be stepping in animal droppings since one of his short-term plans is working on the farm his daughter owns on the mainland.

In contrast to the high-profile departures of many top-ranking leaders, Ingerø said his last day in office won’t be an easy one or involve a ceremonial passing of the torch to his successor.

“I have to close a lot of issues,” he said.

He also isn’t trying to spin his his legacy.

“It’s been very difficult to judge what I have done,” he said.

Ingerø’s reign – split into two time periods from 2001 to 2005 and 2009 to 2015 – saw numerous unique incidents and challenges, and drastic change as Svalbard finally evolved from being primarily a couple of mining “company towns” to a broader family-oriented community and a global player in scientific research. But his departure coincides with perhaps Longyearbyen’s most serious economic crisis ever and increasing political tensions as countries are battling with increasing intensity to maximize their claims to the Arctic.

“In the past year I have noticed many of us can talk about a future without coal production,” he said. “A few years ago that wasn’t something any of us were thinking.”

But Ingerø said he believes the community has generally been stable during his reign and his successor – Kjerstin Askholt, director-general of the Norway’s Polar Affairs Department for the past 12 years – will largely face the same challenges he did.

“I think it will be most likely what I have to deal with, which is to take care of the environment,” he said. At the same time “you have to give room for development, for tourism and for science and other activities that can create stable jobs.”

“I hope we will go over the slope we have in the near future. I will be happy if we can continue with the same number of people for the next five years.”

Ingerø said that while his role as the governor is primarily a legal one, he has tried to offer guidance to make some of that development possible.

“We tried to give advice so it was possible to build the new mine at Lunckefjell,” he said. “We didn’t say no, but we had to give strong regulations to take care of the nature, the environment.”

As for the international tensions, Ingerø stated in his final “state of Svalbard” speech on Norwegian Constitution Day in May he is confident Norway will retain its sovereignty of the archipelago and speculation about Russia making aggressive moves in the region to expand its presence is overblown.  While here have been accidents due to safety violations, illegal construction and other violations of the law in recent years – including the recent discovery of what may be illegal spy cameras is areas frequented by foreigners – in the Russians settlement, Ingerø said his office is well-prepared to handle them.

“Here in Svalbard I think the Norwegian law enforcement is better now than ever,” he said.

Interpreting and enforcing regulations is one of toughest parts of the job, Ingerø said.

“The governor has to say no to a lot of things that people like to do,” he said. “So you have to deny applications and people don’t always understand. But it is a legal requirement with my work.”

Also unpopular at times are his decisions to impose the death penalty – on polar bears who attack humans or are too aggressive near people, or are seriously injured as a result of such encounters.

And while not necessarily unpleasant or subject to criticism, he said playing the role of host to various international leaders and delegations is a part of the job that definitely doesn’t come naturally to him.

But for Ingerø the substantial rather than the ceremonial aspects of the job are where the real rewards are.

“The most important experience and what I will miss most when I go home is to be part of the search and rescue experience,” he said. “Sometimes we have done things that save lives.”

The governor’s office also has had to keep people from getting themselves into dangerous situations, which Ingerø said has been the strangest part of the job.

“I have several times received visitors who are completely unprepared on the conditions in Svalbard,” he said. “They are thinly dressed and have unsuitable shoes.”

Ingerø is, of course, rather familiar with how harsh the conditions can be in Svalbard, having flown in rescue helicopters in bad weather – “but I can’t say I’ve felt in any danger,” he said – and by exploring the outdoors frequently in his spare time. When he first arrived it was largely by snowmobile; now it’s more likely to be on foot.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older and I have to take care of my physique,” he said.

Ingerø will leave Svalbard on Friday – although he said he will return to visit friends and loved ones here – and in addition to helping on his daughter’s farm “I have to take care of my house and cabin which I haven’t paid attention to for a while.” He said there are things he will miss, but he is trying to keep his focus on what’s ahead.

“I will miss my colleagues and an interesting job”, he said. “Being a part of the city. I try not to think too much about that. I am a very happy man to have been able to do this twice.”