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GAO report reviews funding for Alaska Native villages
Monday, December 15, 2003

The majority of Alaska Native villages are threatened by flooding and erosion, but few qualify for federal funds under existing guidelines, according to a Congressional report released on Friday.

In the first study of its kind, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed environmental dangers facing 213 villages. Most, or 86 percent, suffer from long-standing or seasonal threats, investigators reported.

Focusing on nine villages in particular, the GAO found four in "imminent danger" from flooding and erosion. Kivalina, Koyukuk, Newtok, and Shishmaref are in the process of relocating to prevent, in some cases, from falling into the sea.

"Because of the high cost of materials and transportation in remote parts of Alaska, the cost of relocation for these villages is expected to be high," the report said.

Five others -- Barrow, Bethel, Kaktovik, Point Hope and Unalakleet -- won't be moving but "experience serious flooding and erosion," the GAO reported. These villages are in various stages of responding to their problems, working with state and federal officials on planning efforts.

Normally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) would be able to provide assistance to these villages. Each agency operates programs to respond to flooding and erosion that Alaska Natives face.

But the GAO found that the villages have a tough time getting help. "With few exceptions, Alaska Native villages' requests for the Corps' assistance are denied because of the Corps' determination that project costs outweigh the expected benefits," the report stated.

"Even villages that do meet the Corps' cost/benefit criteria may still fail to receive assistance if they cannot provide or find sufficient funding to meet the cost-share requirements for the project," the report added.

Getting funding through the NRCS is somewhat easier, the GAO reported. Some villages have received funding from two of three key NRCS programs them because subsistence, impact on burial grounds and other factors are taken into account, not just cost/benefit.

As funding for Alaska Natives comes under greater scrutiny, the report makes recommendations on how the delivery of federal services to villages might be changed. Expanding the role of the Denali Commission, a federal-state venture; directing federal agencies to take into account social and environmental factors in analyzing village projects; waiving the cost/benefit requirements for the projects; and "bundling" of funding from different federal agencies are four ways suggested by the GAO.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) requested the erosion study through a rider in the 2003 military appropriations act. He has proposed another rider, in the 2004 omnibus appropriations act that was passed by the House last week and will be considered by the Senate next month, to require GAO to look at a wider range of federal funding for Alaska's tribes.

Stevens said he was prompted over reports of villages wasting federal housing funds. "[W]e found one area of Alaska, we did fund those and there wasn't a house built in four years, but there's all those people out there hired to help them," he told Alaska reporters in early October.

Friday's study found instances where federal funding was provided to villages that are planning to relocate. According to the report, Denali Commission and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agreed to fund a $1.1 million health clinic in Newtok even though residents don't plan on living there.

"Had the agencies known of the village's relocation plans they could have explored other, potentially less costly, options for meeting the village's needs, until it is able to relocate," the report stated.

The Federal Aviation Administration solicited bids for a $10.3 million project to improve the airport runway in Koyukuk. FAA officials said they were unaware the village was planning to move, but that state officials knew, according to the GAO report.

Of the four villages planning relocation, only Kivalina has made cost estimates -- ranging from $100 million to $400 million, depending on the new site chosen.

Get the Report:
Alaska Native Villages: Most Are Affected by Flooding and Erosion, but Few Qualify for Federal Assistance. GAO-04-142 | Highlights

Omnibus Appropriations Bill:

Related Stories:
Senate to take up appropriations bill in '04 (12/10)
House passes massive appropriations measure (12/9)
Massive spending bill likely to be delayed till '04 (12/8)
Massive appropriations bill holds surprises (12/4)
Tribes lobbying against 'harmful' appropriations riders (11/10)
Stevens unapologetic in speech to Alaska Natives (10/27)
Stevens remarks on Alaska Natives draw fire (10/7)

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