On heels of Presidential visit, Denali Commission considers next steps

The profile of the Denali Commission was elevated earlier this month, after President Obama announced during his visit to Alaska that the commission would coordinate the flow of resources to communities threatened by erosion, flooding and permafrost degradation.

The president also announced that the Denali Commission would receive $2 million to begin planning and coordination efforts.

With the money in hand and needing to be allocated by Sept. 30, the Commission is trying to figure out its next steps.

At a public meeting and teleconference on Tuesday, Bob Glascott with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suggested that updating existing databases would be helpful, since the most recent information about communities threatened by erosion comes from 2009, and flood maps on file are often more than 40 years old.

“Go out and talk to these communities, find out historically where the impacts have been, look at high water marks in these communities and survey them in – some sort of scope that would allow us to prioritize and figure out, if you have to make a list, and say ‘this is the number one community today with this snapshot’, and kind of go from there,” Glascott said.

Commissioner Julie Kitka, President of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said the Denali Commission needs internal reforms before it can expand to fulfill its new role as the lead agency directing responses to climate change in Alaska.

That includes reinstating a 5 percent cap on the administrative fee that the Denali Commission takes out of any incoming grant money.

“Our number one thing that we could be doing better at the Denali Commission is keeping that cap and keeping accountability on that,” Kitka said. “When that exploded and increased on that, it really weakened our argument for having resources flow through the Denali Commission.”

Kitka also argued for a greater decision-making role for commissioners. Denali Commission Federal Co-Chair Joel Neimeyer was open to the suggestion, but admitted that having more meetings may not be enough to tackle the challenges ahead of the Commission.

“If that is what commissioners want, I will work with stakeholders and program partners so that we can get you the information so you can make these choices. But my challenge has been: how do I get you all together for a long period of time to truly appreciate what this issue is?” Neimeyer said. “And I can tell you, I have been looking at this issue now since June, and I’ve spent a lot of time on it, and I am at a loss at trying to figure out how to move forward with the 2 million [dollars]. I am at a loss at how we engage with our friends at DC.”

The Denali Commission’s new role as a coordinating agency for projects related to coastal erosion, flooding and permafrost degradation will be overseen by the White House’s Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which President Obama created in January.

The next scheduled meeting of the Denali Commission is in November.