At crucial moment, Denali Commission faces leadership gap

Joel Neimeyer of the Denali Commission, right, speaks with DEC Commisioner Larry Hartig on a 2017 visit to Mertarvik, the site where the village of Newtok hopes to rebuild. Neimeyer’s last day on the job is April 20. (Photo by Christine Trudeau/KYUK)

The top job at the federal agency tasked with coordinating the relocation of Alaska villages threatened by climate change will soon be vacant.

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Joel Neimeyer will step down as federal co-chair of the Denali Commission when his term expires Friday. The Trump Administration has not yet named a replacement.

The vacancy comes at a crucial moment for the agency. In March, Congress doubled the commission’s budget to $30 million, directing it to work with villages facing coastal erosion, flooding and degrading permafrost.

Originally the brainchild of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the Denali Commission was established by Congress in 1998 to fund economic development and infrastructure in rural Alaska. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama added another mission: assisting Alaska communities threatened by climate change, like Newtok, Shishmaref and Kivalina.

That has been a major focus for Neimeyer. During his eight years as the head of the agency, the commission has pivoted from funding new infrastructure to maintaining existing projects — and trying to raise awareness of climate impacts.

Neimeyer said it’s sometimes been a lonely job.

“The Denali Commission has always been sort of the red-headed stepchild,” Neimeyer said in an interview, a week before his term was set to end. “Regional commissions by their nature are unusual…So we are sort of an island out there as an agency. And the biggest challenge will always be to get cabinet-level agencies to pay attention to what we identify are issues of the day.”

One of the biggest “issues of the day” during Neimeyer’s tenure has been the question of what to do about Alaska villages facing potential destruction. Neimeyer waged a dogged effort to unlock federal funding for climate-related erosion, work that paid off when Congress added $15 million to the commission’s budget as part of this year’s budget deal. Most of that money will go to relocate Newtok, the Western Alaska village most at risk.

But now that the funding has finally arrived, Neimeyer’s term is ending. His exit leaves a big hole at the agency: only the federal co-chair can sign off on spending, so Neimeyer and his staff have worked overtime to approve projects before his last day.

Still, Neimeyer said it’s a good time to hand over the reins.

“Not everyone gets to cross the finish line, and I understand that,” Neimeyer said.

The Trump Administration has twice proposed eliminating the Denali Commission entirely. Neimeyer, who was appointed under Obama, is a Democrat. He said the agency needs a Republican head to make the case for it within a Republican administration.

“There may be some things that are bittersweet, but I know that my continuance as the federal co-chair won’t help the agency in the long run,” Neimeyer said. “What actually will help is new blood.”

Who that new blood might be remains an open question. The Alaska congressional delegation must nominate potential candidates to be appointed by the Trump Administration. A spokesperson for Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the senator is currently vetting potential candidates, but offered no prediction on when a replacement might be announced.

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Rachel Waldholz covers energy and the environment for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media, KTOO in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Before coming to Anchorage, she spent two years reporting for Raven Radio in Sitka. Rachel studied documentary production at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and her short film, A Confused War won several awards. Her work has appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace, among other outlets. rwaldholz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8432 | About Rachel