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Nine Juneau staffers at a one-of-a-kind minerals museum face a bleak future, with funding for their program slashed from the federal budget.
For the past decade, geologists have labored at the Juneau-John Rishel Mineral Information Center on Mayflower Island, just off Douglas. They engaged in field work, such as minerals research on Admiralty Island, while based at a unique repository for Alaska minerals and historic mining documents.
But the field work has been canceled, and the entire operation could be shut down between now and Sept. 30, according to Supervisor Chris DeWitt.
"It's stressful," DeWitt said. "People enjoy working with the program. ... A lot of people have been here for quite a few years."
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The center has been under the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's billion-dollar umbrella since 1996, when it was transferred from the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Geologists have been funded by the $2.3 million budget of the BLM's Alaska Minerals Program. Another team of eight staffers worked out of Anchorage. They were tasked with assessing mineral resources on public lands to determine the type of deposits, the amounts and the potential for development.
"It's an Alaska-specific program," DeWitt said. "It's the type of work the BLM is not doing anywhere else in the nation."
But the program has been tenuous at best for the past two years. Funding for it was excluded from the 2007 federal budget, though it stayed operational because the government was operating on a continuing resolution, DeWitt said. The program was trimmed again from the 2008 budget requests.
"It's up in the air," he said. "You can't sit here and say anything's definite. What you can say is we are not in the budget request for fiscal year 2008. Since the entire staff is funded through that program, you have to go from there."
A human resources team in Anchorage interviewed the employees about what they want to do. Reassignments could begin as early as next month, DeWitt said.
"If they keep people here, the whole focus will be community outreach," he said.
The facility could remain open as a museum with a staff of two or three. They may continue conducting tours of the neighboring Treadwell Mine during school field trips and giving classes in geology and mineral identification.
The center receives 175 to 200 visitors each month in the summer and 30 to 60 the rest of the year. Admission is free.
The place offers displays of Alaska fossils, mining equipment, more than 100 historic photographs and about 300 Alaska minerals. Glittering behind glass, the minerals come in all shades and hues. Gold flecks look dark inside quartz. White-and-purple lepidolite contrasts with silvery jamesonite. Green fuchsite, speckled albite and red cinnabar each have their place.
Upstairs, filing cabinets open to reveal yellowed records from old mines. Property records and old maps are kept along with century-old drafting linen. Old newspaper clippings are in one room; another bears boxes of gold-production records.
There are still options and possibilities for the center and its artifacts. Another government agency could take over, DeWitt said. Local museums may claim artifacts. Items may end up in the BLM's science center in Anchorage.
"My fear is stuff getting boxed up and put away and forgotten," DeWitt said.
Ken Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.