Tucked away in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill are provisions of up to $175 million for the Denali Commission, a federal body tasked with promoting rural infrastructure development in Alaska. The funding is part of a bundle of infrastructure giveaways for the state, whose senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, served as one of the lead Republican negotiators on the legislation.
The allotments in the bipartisan bill will infuse new life into the Denali Commission, which has survived a rather tumultuous history and will now presumably be able to fund new projects in some of the remotest corners of the United States. The bill grants $75 million directly to the Denali Commission, and authorizes Congress to appropriate $20 million for each fiscal year from 2022 through 2026 — $100 million total — toward the Denali Access System Program, a part of the commission that oversees surface-transportation projects.
The Denali Commission is among several federal commissions charged with initiating infrastructure projects across the country.
Those programs “are designed to funnel money to politically favorable areas, and they typically are able to survive because the spending is small enough that it doesn’t make a big difference from a budget point of view,” David Ditch, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told National Review.
And yet, the Denali Commission has funded vital infrastructure projects in rural areas that could have been overlooked by other agencies, according to Senator Murkowski’s office.
“The Denali Commission plays a crucial role in the lives of Alaskans — especially to the health and economic development of those living in rural Alaska,” a Murkowski spokesperson told National Review. “The Denali Commission funds critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support, including the construction of water and sewer systems, healthcare facilities, and roads. . . . These are basic services of the federal government, and needs of Alaskans, already available in other areas of the country — and the Commission provides them in a cost-effective manner by reducing administrative and overhead costs.”
The Denali Commission was created in 1998 by late Alaska senator Ted Stevens, with the stated goal of funding and developing infrastructure in remote towns and villages. With a dozen or so employees, the commission acts as a middleman to channel federal funds toward those communities.
The scope of the commission has grown over the years. For example, in 2005, Stevens and longtime Alaska representative Don Young expanded the commission to include the Denali Access System Program, with the specific intent of funding surface-transportation projects — e.g., roads and ports — in far-flung towns, including many where members of Native American tribes live.
Among the transportation projects completed in the past few years was a $1.3 million all-terrain vehicle road between Tununak and Toksook Bay, villages on the Bering Sea so isolated that each has its own airstrip.
Toksook Bay had a population of about 660 at the start of the 2020 census, and residents rely on subsistence fishing and hunting for various sources of food. Tununak is even smaller, with a population under 400. The Denali Commission has been instrumental in funding infrastructure improvements for these towns, including the repair of main roads and construction of a half-mile-long boardwalk on the seashore in Tununak to prevent erosion.
Denali projects regularly reach into the least-populated areas of the U.S. One such initiative, completed in 2011, allocated over $1.3 million toward refurbishing the harbor of Chenega, an Alutiiq village on the otherwise uninhabited Evans Island in Prince William Sound.
More recently, in 2018, the commission allocated $200,000 toward road improvements for the city and borough of Yakutat. At about 9,500 square miles, the borough is one of the largest counties in the U.S. but was estimated to have a population of just 579 in 2019.
The new cash infusion from the infrastructure bill could breathe new life into programs such as these. It wouldn’t be the first time the Denali Commission received new funding after the federal well seemingly dried up.
In the early 2000s, the commission’s budget reached into the tens of millions, hitting as high as $150 million in 2006. Funds began to dwindle after Senator Stevens’s election loss in 2008, followed a few years later by the ban on congressional earmarks. In 2012, Congress allotted the commission under $11 million.
Then, in 2013, the commission’s own inspector general tried to torpedo the agency in a bizarre episode that made national headlines. Mike Marsh, a former prosecutor from Phoenix, Ariz., who commuted to Alaska only when necessary, wrote to Congress asking that he and every employee at the commission be fired. Marsh also forwarded his letter to the Washington Post.
“I have concluded that [my commission] is a congressional experiment that hasn’t worked out in practice,” Marsh wrote. “At this point, I recommend that Congress no longer send Denali an annual ‘base’ appropriation.”
Marsh criticized the commission for what he viewed as its propensity to set up large projects — hospitals, power plants, etc. — in small towns that did not have the resources to maintain them.
“Denali’s paradigm in practice has been to build three basic facilities in every ‘bush’ settlement: (1) a powerhouse, (2) a tank farm, and (3) a medical clinic,” Marsh wrote, stating those projects are ultimately ineffective “if a tiny place can’t fund the fuel, upkeep, and staffing to make use of it.”
Marsh’s attempt to get himself and his colleagues fired drew attention from some lawmakers, but Alaska’s congressional delegation defended the commission.
“The Denali Commission is too important to our state and our people to have it erode,” Senator Lisa Murkowski said at the time.
But while that audit got under way, Murkowski turned the tables and requested a GAO audit of Marsh himself. Released on September 18, 2014, the audit found that Marsh’s office had reviewed only $150,000 out of $167 million in grants — less than 1 percent — disbursed by the commission. The GAO also found that Marsh’s office did not implement several “quality standards that are critical for the management and operations” of the inspector general’s office.
Marsh had already resigned from the Denali Commission in December 2013, and the commission survived his push to withdraw federal funding. After it limped along for another year, the Obama administration stepped in to tap the commission for a new set of projects: the protection of coastal villages threatened by erosion and rising sea levels.
The Obama administration called on Congress to provide funding to the commission to protect 31 Alaskan towns threatened by erosion and flooding, as identified in a 2009 GAO report. The White House also ordered the commission to establish its Village Infrastructure Protection (VIP) Program.
“It’s wonderful for us and fantastic for Alaskans,” Joel Neimeyer, the federal official who was then co-chairman of the commission, told the Washington Post at the time. “We have a new assignment, a new life.”
The Denali Commission has received “no new recurring appropriations” for the VIP program, according to its website. However, the commission has allotted some of its discretionary funds to finance certain projects, the most prominent of which is the relocation of the town of Newtok, with over 300 residents. This town is expected to be destroyed by erosion along the banks of the adjacent Ninglick River, proceeding at a pace of about 70 feet per year, so residents are moving nine miles to a new site called Mertavik. While a number of government agencies are involved in the relocation, the commission has allocated $22 million toward the effort, including the development of housing, roads, and other infrastructure at the town’s new site.
The Denali Commission kept on going despite the Trump administration’s attempts to scupper the program. The Trump White House proposed eliminating the Denali Commission in 2017, along with cuts to other Alaskan programs. “This budget isn’t going anywhere,” Representative Young said at the time. The commission survived.
The Trump White House again attempted to nix the commission in 2020, proposing $7 million for its “orderly closure.”
Nevertheless, Alaska’s congressional delegation again pledged to protect the Denali Commission, saying it was essential for the state. And once again, the commission survived.
Now, the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill allocates another $75 million to the commission “to remain available until expended” — essentially a block grant, along with the $100 million available for appropriation for transportation projects. The commission has a renewed lease on life and will likely continue to develop projects for the most far-flung of American towns for years to come.