ANCHORAGE - A federal agency that funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into rural Alaska construction projects is considering a subtle policy shift that could determine which villages survive and which don't.
The proposed policy spells out benchmarks the Denali Commission will use to determine whether a village qualifies for new facilities and at what level. Those benchmarks include:
fewer than 100 residents or a declining population
imminent environmental threat, such as flooding or erosion
high construction costs
the village's economic potential to operate and maintain the facility
"The Commission does not believe it is advisable or prudent to invest significant funds in communities where long-term sustainability of community facilities and services appears unlikely," the proposed policy states.
Commission co-chairman Jeff Staser said the plan, which is open for public comment through mid-August and could be adopted in September, merely codifies the informal guidelines used since the panel formed in 1998. It won't change the way the commission funds projects or which villages receive funding, he said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Sunday she sent a letter to Staser asking that the comment period be extended until mid-November, following the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.
In Western Alaska, where erosion threatens at least a dozen villages, the proposed policy looks potentially worrisome, said Julianne Baltar, transportation director for Kawerak Inc., the Nome-based regional Native nonprofit.
The benchmark on "imminent environmental threat" might knock some villages out of contention for funding, while villages whose economies are based on subsistence hunting and fishing may not meet the economic potential benchmark, she said.
Steve Weaver of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which often invests in commission projects, said the policy could provide justification for the Denali Commission to ignore villages' needs.
"It would be too easy to put these (criteria) into a matrix and say to a village, 'You're under 50 people, sorry,"' he said.
Since Congress created the Denali Commission, the agency has pumped money into health care facilities, fuel tank farms, utility upgrades and job training. This year alone, the agency has about $100 million in construction projects under way, which attracted another $100 million in matching funds from other agencies, Staser said.
But each project underwent the same scrutiny as proposed in the new policy, he said. The commission considers such factors as the size of the community and its ability to pay for a project's operations and maintenance before it approves funding.
"We can do more damage than good by dropping facilities on communities that are sized too big for their need and their ability to keep it going for the next few decades," Staser said.
The impetus for the policy came this spring when the commission visited Shishmaref, a village of 600 on the Chukchi Sea coast threatened by erosion, Staser said. The community voted last year to move inland. But with relocation estimated to cost $100 million or more, the village may stay put for several more years.
In the meantime, Staser said, Shishmaref residents want the same kinds of facilities as other villages.
"I had to tell them, 'You're not going to get the same thing everyone else gets, but you'll get something that's appropriate to the challenge' " of living in a place that might disappear during the next big fall storm, he said.