Village relocation efforts given ‘significant’ boost by president

The community of Kotzebue photographed in July 2012. Photo: ShoreZone via Flickr Creative Commons.
The community of Kotzebue photographed in July 2012. Photo: ShoreZone via Flickr Creative Commons.

The White House announced Wednesday it will be adding funding and capacity for a wide array of programs in Alaska connected with global warming. The federal government is tapping the Denali Commission as the lead agency to address the relocation of coastal communities across Alaska.

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But the particulars of that announcement were still being sorted out ahead of the president’s appearance in Kotzebue, where he was expected to make a formal announcement. At a tribal round-table in the hub-community of about 3,200, Percy Ballot of Buckland noted that the $2 million set aside for voluntary relocation is welcomed, but falls far short of the costs.

“We appreciate that, we really do,” Ballot said in response to a question. “It’s going to help us a little bit, but we need more than that. To move (the) Native Village of Kivalina is going to cost a lot more money than that.”

That $2 million, though, is not for physical relocation, but instead for launching a coordinated review of how many among the roughly 30 communities identified in a 2009 report will either move, or fortify existing town sites.

Up until now, the state has overseen community relocation projects, but with no one agency fully in charge of the intricate logistical challenges.

“Funding has certainly been a limiting factor,” said Sally Cox, a planner with the state’s Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, who has been intimately involved in developing relocation strategies since she began working with the Native Village of Newtok almost a decade ago.

So far, six communities identified as imperiled–Newtok, Shishmaref, Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Kivalina, and Koyukuk–have received grant funds to develop plans for relocating or protecting in place. But the grant process is complicated, and technical guidance from regional nonprofits and state agencies has been essential for tribes deciding how to proceed.

Cox expects that in adapting and consolidating procedures that are presently spread across multiple entities the Denali Commission will improve upon existing abilities to respond.

“It could potentially make the process go much more smoothly, and streamline funding rules and regulations,” said Cox.

For those inside the Denali Commission, the White House’s announcement is significant news.

“I think it’s a huge step forward for the Administration to identify a federal agency as lead to take on this huge undertaking,” said Joel Neimeyer, co-chair of the commission, which was set up almost two decades ago to better funnel Federal resources into Alaska programs.

At present, the Commission does not have the staff to begin systematically working with the dozens of communities recognized as imperiled. But that is part of what the $2 million announced by the president is set aside for: Staff and a review process.

“What we’re looking at is vulnerable communities that face environmental threats from flooding, erosion, and permafrost degradation,” said Neimeyer.

It’s a welcomed development for those who say the status quo has not been working. Selecting an entity to take charge of such multifaceted relocation reviews has been a repeated recommendation to the state and federal governments by groups like Kawerak, which represents several Bering Strait communities actively mitigating threats from climate change.

“We need to coordinate on a state, federal and local level,” said Kawerak President Melanie Bahnke. “There is no one lead agency that is tasked with identifying protective measures that need to be put in place.”

The Denali Commission has been an excellent partner in the past, Bahnke said, having financed projects within all 15 communities in the region. Part of the Commission’s design for evaluating mitigation and relocation needs is the template established by the Health Facilities Program, which dramatically expanded clinic facilities across rural Alaska over the course of the last 15 years.

While there has been high-level attention cast towards the climate threats to coastal communities in the past, the acknowledgements brought this week are new.

“I do think the focus–the level at which the attention is now being commanded from the President of the United State–that is what’s new,” Bahnke said.

At the heart of the president’s announcement is recognition from the administration that Alaska’s coastal communities are in immediate danger. The Denali Commission news comes along with a catalog of funding resources for relocation projects, developing a set of principals for relocation, and streamlining the process for Tribes making official disaster declarations through FEMA. Taken all together, many see the president’s visit as launching an organized federal response to years of scattered reports of environmental change in Alaska.

“Communities all over Alaska have been sending out a signal that they are experiencing really extreme and profound change,” said Mike Brubaker with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Center for Climate and Health. Brubaker’s Local Environmental Observer Network, which has produced an app for residents to self-report environmental irregularities, is included in the White House’s list of supported Alaska projects.

Although there is not yet a funding source for actual relocation or mitigation measures, Neimeyer with the Denali Commission said that involvement from the president’s recently created Arctic Executive Steering Committee could bring cabinet-level involvement into planning efforts. And with it, cabinet-level funds.