Commission coordinating Alaska village relocation awaits new leader

The Denali Commission is being led by an interim co-chair until a new head can be appointed.

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The Denali Commission is the lead federal agency in efforts to help relocate imperiled Alaska villages such as Kivalina. (Relocate Kivalina)

The federal agency tasked with coordinating efforts to relocate eroding Alaska villages now lacks a permanent leader.

The Denali Commission lost its federal co-chair when Joel Neimeyer’s term expired on April 20 and he opted against renewal of his work there. Neimeyer had been at the Denali Commission since 2010. The commission, a rural Alaska-focused version of a much-older federal organization that promotes economic development and infrastructure improvements in the Appalachian region, was founded by Congress in 1998.

For now, former state Sen. John Torgerson has been filling in as interim chairman, at the recommendation of the Alaska Congressional delegation.

In an April 19 letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the delegation said it has nearly completed its review of candidates to succeed Neimeyer and will soon submit a final list of nominees to the speaker of the U.S. House and the president of the U.S. Senate. Because there are many functions that only the federal co-chair can carry out, an interim appointment was urgently needed, the delegation’s letter said. Torgerson, who has many years of experience in state and municipal government, is “well qualified” for that role, the letter said.

The Trump administration, in its earlier budget proposals, had targeted the Denali Commission for elimination, along with the Appalachian Regional Commission and similar commissions serving the Mississippi Delta region and the economically distressed areas of northern New England. Last year, the Denali Commission began work necessary to close down.

But instead of getting rid of the commission, Congress in March doubled its funding to $30 million. Half of that money will be used to help move the Yupik village of Newtok, which is perched on thawing and eroding riverbank permafrost, to a safer site 9 miles to the south.

In his last major act at the Denali Commission, Neimeyer on April 19 signed a record of decision approving an environmental impact statement for what is known as the Mertarvik Infrastructure Development Project. Mertarvik is the replacement site for the village of Newtok; the development project plans for key facilities like a school, landfill, water treatment plant and homes. Already, some homes have been built at the new village site, along with a barge landing, evacuation center and access road.

The record of decision is an important milestone that will help Newtok residents get to their new home, Neimeyer said in a statement.

“When you have a river that is approaching at a rate of 70 feet per year, time is of the essence,” he said. “Having the EIS complete allows us to move forward with construction a full year sooner and, more importantly, relocate more families before the river overtakes their homes. Our goal is to have as many occupiable housing units as possible in place by October 1, 2019.”

Several Alaska villages are targeted for complete or partial relocation because of erosion and flood threats created by rapid climate change. Of the four candidates for complete relocation, Newtok has made the most progress, in part because it has title to an acceptable new village site. But finding full funding for relocation — estimated to be well over $100 million per village — remains a challenge.

Yereth Rosen is a 2018 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.