Nestled 20 miles south of Ketchikan, Alaska, the Metlakatla Indian Community resides on Annette Island. The tribe opted out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act when Congress passed the legislation in 1971. Today the Annette Islands Reserve is the only Native American reservation in the state and the tribe lives among the remnants of past military and federal use of the land. Through the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District and the Metlakatla Indian Community are working together to continue environmental cleanup efforts for the 22nd year.
Reachable only by a 15-minute floatplane or 45-minute ferry ride from Ketchikan, the Annette Island Landing Field Formerly Used Defense Site property covers approximately 12,783 acres on the southwest peninsula of Annette Island.
Since October 2019, work by the tribe under the mitigation program has focused on three sites – an old fuel pipeline, an air warning center garrison and abandoned utility officer buildings.
“Based on funding, the tribe concentrates on a few projects each year,” said Craig Scola, project manager at USACE. “Under this year’s cooperative agreement, there is a half a million dollars of cleanup work happening.”
Each of the sites has a history starting with the military and subsequent use by other federal agencies interested in the island for various purposes.
The air warning center garrison was built using Quonset huts in 1942 to detect the sound of incoming airplanes. In 1949, the buildings’ metal roofs and wood floors were stripped for use at other locations while the remaining structural elements were left in place. Over time, trees and vegetation have overtaken the abandoned infrastructure as they slowly weathered.
Work at the air warning center garrison in 2020 focuses on the removal of existing structures and remaining debris with similar work underway at the nearby abandoned utility officer buildings.
“When you go to these sites, you begin to see how the abandoned infrastructure is impacting native people,” Scola said. “For communities that focus on subsistence lifestyles, an old building can inhibit their ability to pick berries, harvest game, cultivate the land and impact their traditional way of life.”
This year also was a continuation of the removal of a fuel pipeline system. With around six miles of pipeline on the island, the extraction is done in sections as the pipeline weaves through a variety of terrains and areas of the island. Under the current cooperative agreement with the tribe, the goal is to remove 1,200 feet and then stack the metal in a holding area until it can be barged from the island.
“Little by little we are cleaning up their island,” said Robert Glascott, program manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District. “The program allows us to infuse money into rural communities with limited job opportunities, while the tribe cleans up Department of Defense impacts.”
The tribe relocated to Annette Island from Canada in 1887 after receiving the land from the U.S. government following a doctrinal dispute with church authorities in Metlakatla, British Columbia.
Military interest and operations on Annette Island began in 1940 when the Metlakatla Indian Community entered into agreement with the U.S. government to allow for the construction and operation of the Annette Island Landing Field. Since then, facilities and uses of the island have changed numerous times among various federal agencies, with 90 sites and around 300 subsites identified for clean up since investigations began in 1990.
The Office for the Secretary of Defense oversees the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program and considers human health and other factors, including impacts to traditional practices, subsistence activities and economic viability to prioritize funding under the mitigation program. Tribal communities work with the DoD on a government-to-government basis to determine the best ways to mitigate the environmental impacts and are involved from project design to cleanup efforts through cooperative agreements.
“The Metlakatla Indian Community can work almost 300 days a year whereas up north, tribes are often limited by weather to maybe 90 days,” Glascott said. “This provides employment almost all year; builds capacity, technical remediation skills and resilience; and puts dollars into rural communities that may not have many job opportunities.”
Since 1998, the mitigation program has funded cleanup on Annette Island with the Alaska District administering cooperating agreements for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. To date, funding has totaled around $10 million through 16 separate cooperative agreements.
“A unique part of working with the Metlakatla Indian Community is that they are the only tribe in Alaska on a reservation,” Scola said. “We perform environmental clean up to their environmental protection agency’s identified regulatory levels and work with them on right of access for contractors to the island.”
This relationship was especially important during the summer as COVID-19 spread in the United States. The tribe implemented restrictions and quarantines for people entering and exiting the community to prevent the virus from spreading.
“We could not perform our annual visit to the sites due to travel restrictions,” Scola said. “Instead, we used status reports and photographs to document progress and find virtual means to work through the challenge.”
The restrictions did not stop work on the program, but it did slow it down. Contractors needed to isolate for two weeks before coming to the island, which could have held up projects. But, since most of the work is in the field with limited contact and there has yet to be an instance of COVID-19 on the island, the tribe was able to successfully continue cleanup under the program and accomplish many of the goals under the current cooperative agreement.
Next year, work will pivot to several new sites and this continuation of the program will help with the ongoing efforts needed to restore the land.
“I get to see the good this program does in communities,” Glascott said. “It is a crossroads of environmental cleanup and helping people in rural communities continue their traditional subsistence way of life in Alaska.”
During the 2020 fiscal year, the Alaska District will administer $7 million in funding through 20 cooperative agreements for the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program, the most in the country.