News of Obama Initiative on Village Relocation Pops in Nome

Water and sewer systems in communities across Alaska are threatened by flooding and erosion due to climate change. Shown here is the village of Kivalina located on a barrier island in Northwest Alaska that's facing inundation. Joaqlin Estus KNBA
The village of Kivalina is one of several Alaska locales threatened by eroding coastlines and rising sea levels. APRN file photo: Joaqlin Estus KNBA

Word is out already on one initiative President Obama is likely to announce while he’s here — a plan to put the Denali Commission in charge of a project on village relocation. That came out in Nome this week, at a meeting of The U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

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Renewable energy, climate change, and port development were all highlighted at the U.S. Arctic Research Commission’s second day in Nome, but it was a special announcement about the President’s upcoming visit to Alaska that got the room buzzing.

“So next week when the president is here, he’s going to announce that the Denali Commission is going to be the lead agency to look at the environmentally threatened communities in Alaska,” says Lorraine Cordova, project manager of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Alaska Deep Draft Arctic Port Study. She broke the news Wednesday. The Denali Commission is an independent federal agency that has provided infrastructure and economic support throughout Alaska since 1998.

The project will focus on 31 communities throughout the state, from Barrow on the North Slope down to Port Heiden on the Bering Sea and east to Eyak. Over a span of three years, the Denali Commission’s efforts will help determine whether each community should “protect in place” or relocate due to the effects of climate change.

“It’s a difficult community question to answer. Do we move or do we stay. What parts do we move? What moves first, I mean, it’s not as easy as one might suggest.”

In a public teleconference organized by the Denali Commission this morning, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot says the White House intends to put Sen. Lisa Murkowski at the reigns of the project.

Denali Commissioner and President of the Alaska Federation of Natives Julie Kitka chimed in with her approval about the historic announcement

“I think that this is unprecedented to have the president of the United States mention the Denali Commission and be willing to engage and have his administration step up the effort to meet community needs and I really do think that what we’re doing today and as we move forward is going to be incredible. I really do think it really is pretty darn historical.”

President Obama is expected to unveil more details about the Denali Commissions role in the project during his visit to Kotzebue on Wednesday.

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for a year at KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.