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Unique federal program cleans tribal lands, creates tribal lands, creates jobs in Alaska

Published Jan. 19, 2016
Meet new Far East District employee Richard T. Byrd, who started with the Far East District as the Chief of the Army/Navy/Marine Corps and Funds Management Branch in the Programs and Project Management Division in November 2015.

Meet new Far East District employee Richard T. Byrd, who started with the Far East District as the Chief of the Army/Navy/Marine Corps and Funds Management Branch in the Programs and Project Management Division in November 2015.

By John Budnik

USACE - Alaska District

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF RICHARDSON, Alaska – For nearly 40 years, Wildwood Air Force Station’s buildings 100 and 101 stood as abandoned relics of the Department of Defense. Now, the demolition of the facilities and other restorative projects on the same land are providing a local federally recognized native tribe with new opportunities.

During the summers of 2010 and 2011, the buildings, located about four miles north of Kenai, Alaska, were demolished and removed by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. The Kenai Natives Association owns the property as a village corporation under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District manages the federal program that funded the removal project as well as other environmental cleanup activities situated on tribal lands throughout the state.

“Building 101 was a complete nuisance to the association ever since I could remember,” said Gabe Juliussen, member of the Kenai Natives Association board of directors and project manager for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. “It has been a popular hangout for teenagers, and there was a lot of vandalism. A lot of problems have transpired on our land because of that building.”

The Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program provided the opportunity for the two buildings to be demolished. Since 1993, NALEMP performs the DOD mission to address tribes’ environmental concerns per a qualifying criteria. Environmental impacts must affect a federally-recognized tribe; be on eligible lands such as ANCSA property or Native allotments; the damage attributed to past military activities, facilities or operations; and no other government program can fund the remediation for three years. The work is completed through cooperative agreements with the tribe.

“The program addresses environmental concerns that tribes have in a timely manner,” said Andrea Elconin, NALEMP project manager for the Alaska District. “It is unique that the tribes drive the projects by deciding how the impact is cleaned up and perform the work.”

Despite a limited budget for cleanup projects nationwide, Alaska Native communities are experiencing environmental and economic benefits nonetheless. Traditionally, about half of the nationally appropriated funds come to Alaska totaling about $6 million annually, Elconin said. There are 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska. Currently, the Corps manages about 30 cooperative agreements with 19 tribes throughout the state.

Between 1953 and 1972, the Wildwood buildings served the military’s communication mission. Following its closure, the land and nonessential facilities were turned over to the Bureau of Land Management. In 1974, about 4,300 acres of the former Air Force station were conveyed to the Kenai Natives Association through ANCSA. Between 1996 and 1997, multiple restoration activities were conducted by the Corps’ Formerly Used Defense Sites program; including the removal of above-ground fuel tanks, underground fuel tanks; and multiple drums, transformers and other sources of contamination.

Now, the tribe is working to excavate 13 concrete pillars, weighing an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 pounds each, near Wildwood’s former military affiliate radio system site and dispose of about 640 cubic yards of diesel contaminated soil.

Throughout the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s participation in NALEMP, tribal members have gained valuable experience performing the work and fulfilling its mission to develop career skills, Juliussen said.

“There have been three guys on my crew that have been here for five seasons and have received tremendous amounts of heavy equipment and soil cleanup experience,” he said. “It has been really good for their skillsets to be able to market themselves.”

One crew member is earning his process technology degree and is scheduled to graduate soon. Working at Wildwood in the summer and going to school in the winter will help him transition to the oil fields, where he will further his career, Juliussen said.

Meanwhile, the Corps values the rapport established with tribes while working on the project, Elconin said.

“One of the benefits of this program is the relationships that we develop,” she said. “It helps us with projects in the Formerly Used Defense Sites and Civil Works missions and working across the state.”

Overall, Juliussen said he is impressed with the program and experience of working with the Corps. In particular, he is no longer worried about the potential liability of owning a dilapidated building.

“Getting rid of that building has been a huge relief for the Kenai Natives Association,” Juliussen said. “It gives us a prime piece of land to develop in the future. The road is already in place and is a good starting point.”

Release no. 16-008