With last grants, Exxon Valdez oil spill council provides funding for cultural preservation
Little, if any, money from the $900 million Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement remains unspoken for. But much of the last round of funding was distributed with an eye toward investments in facilities and resources that numerous Alaska Native organizations and some current stewards of the settlement funds say were long overdue.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council members unanimously approved approximately $150 million in grants for research and restoration of habitat and resources impacted by the 1989 oil spill during their Oct. 13 meeting.
Among the largest funding proposals approved was $8 million for expanding the Alutiiq Museum and Archeological Repository in Kodiak.
Following the council’s vote on the proposal, Alutiiq Museum Executive Director April Laktonen Counceller said that the renovation and expansion will address all of the major issues identified in a 2019 survey of the museum’s audience.
“The museum will transform its entire first floor into a public space. The exhibit gallery and store will be significantly enlarged, and a classroom created. Here, the museum will be able to meet with elders, hold classes, and host receptions,” Counceller said. “We are going to create a living culture classroom — a place where people can gather to share knowledge and celebrate traditions.”
Work on the museum, which currently houses a collection of roughly 250,000 artifacts, is scheduled to start in February. Grant funding will also be used to build a new vault in the museum’s basement. The original vault was filled about 10 years ago, according to museum leaders.
The initial funds to build the Alutiiq Museum largely came from a 1993 EVOS Trustee Council grant. Current council chair and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune said in an interview after the meeting that it was important for the state trustees, who include Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang and Attorney General Treg Taylor, to make sure there is long-term funding in place for continuing operations at the Alutiiq Museum, as well as other facilities and organizations that arose from the spill. Helping the museum expand and improve its operations is one way to do that.
“The anthropological resources, cultural resource efforts have really been overlooked and it’s important to ensure they will be appropriately preserved for generations,” Brune said.
He added that several trustees were able to tour the museum and better understand what leaders there wanted to do.
Shauna Hegna, president of Koniag Inc., the Kodiak-area Alaska Native regional corporation, said she is thrilled the council made the decision to invest in the museum, which coincides with Koniag donating a portion of the building.
The first floor of the building was built with EVOS council funds and Koniag has worked over the past year to purchase the basement of the building, which will be turned over to the nonprofit for the renovation.
“The Alutiiq Museum will now own its facility and be able to renovate it,” Hegna said.
She thanked the trustees for reviewing the museum proposal and others focused on cultural priorities impacted by the oil spill that previously had little opportunity to secure EVOS funding — $6.8 million for a new Chugach Heritage Foundation Museum and $2.4 million for subsistence resource camps in the Chugach region.
The lion’s share of projects the council historically funded were scientific research and habitat restoration efforts. Numerous projects in those realms were also funded Oct. 13.
Chugach Corp. Executive Vice President Josie Hickel echoed Hegna’s sentiment in regards to the broader proposal review, adding it is one of several improvements Chugach leaders feel the council has made in recent years.
She highlighted the support for culture camps aimed at rejuvenating subsistence activities in the Chugach region as recognition of a major facet of life that was almost completely lost in many spill-affected areas.
“Subsistence was one of those things that was drastically and immediately impacted by the spill,” Hickel said. “That disruption caused a generation of young people to not learn subsistence practices.”
She added that she believes an ultimately unsuccessful stakeholder-led effort to encourage the council to move its last roughly $200 million into an endowment to maintain funding for decades caused council leaders to rethink their approach, at some level.
According to the trustees, a legal opinion from the Justice Department precludes putting the remaining EVOS funds into a traditional endowment fund; that would require an act of Congress. Brune said that in the alternative, the council funded several 10-year science programs to stretch out the money.
A former member of the EVOS Public Advisory Committee, Brune said he and other trustees worked to improve the transparency in the funding process by voting on each of the 65 proposals submitted.
Previously, it was much more difficult for unsolicited proposals to garner the attention needed to get funded, according to Hickel and others.
The remaining $10 million-$12 million in unencumbered funds — as of Friday, council staff were still crunching the final numbers for several proposals amended or partially funded at the meeting — will mostly go to staff and expenses for administering the outstanding grants as the EVOS Trustee Council gradually “winds down,” Brune said.
He expects to hold another council meeting over the winter to determine the council’s budgeting but then only hold meetings every several years or on an as-needed basis. The trustees have traditionally held at least one full council meeting each year.
“We’re trying to put as much money into restoration and science-based efforts, as well as those legacy facilities,” he said, noting the trustees were presented with more than $250 million in proposals when they had approximately $160 million to distribute.
“We put our money where our mouths were and funded what should be funded,” he said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].