President Obama speaks to reporters before taking a boat tour at the Kenai Fjords National Park on Sept. 1 in Seward, Alaska.

President Obama speaks to reporters before taking a boat tour at the Kenai Fjords National Park on Sept. 1 in Seward, Alaska. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Obama Gives New Role to Federal Agency Once Deemed Useless by Its Own IG

Denali Commission will coordinate climate change response in Alaska.

Getting rid of federal agencies that have outlived their original purposes has proved extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, in recent U.S. history. It appears President Obama has decided it is easier to instead give one such agency a new mission.

The Denali Commission, an independent federal agency viewed by many as a pork project designed to boost infrastructure and economic support in Alaska, came under heat in 2013 when its inspector general questioned its utility.

Mike Marsh, then the commission’s IG, wrote to Congress that the agency was a “congressional experiment that hasn’t worked out in practice." His solution? “I recommend that Congress put its money elsewhere.”

Marsh’s kamikaze mission failed, his integrity as an auditor was questioned after his resignation from the post and the commission lived on. Enter President Obama, who on Wednesday unveiled a series of steps and investments to combat climate change in Alaska. Part of that announcement included a new role for the Denali Commission: coordinating “short and long-term solutions” to mitigate the impact of climate change on 31 communities throughout the Last Frontier state.

“The Denali Commission will serve as a one-stop-shop for matters relating to coastal resilience in Alaska as appropriate,” the White House said in advance of Obama’s announcement. “The commission will collaborate with the state of Alaska, local and tribal agencies to facilitate coordination of federal engagement in efforts to protect communities, and conduct voluntary relocation or other managed retreat efforts.” It will also dole out a slew of grants to power plants across the state.

The commission will receive a $2 million boost from the administration, which hopes to continue to increase the agency’s funding going forward. Obama asked Congress to give the Denali Commission $14 million in fiscal 2016.

“The president calls on Congress to provide sufficient funding for the commission’s critical activities and looks forward to working with Congress, the commission, Alaska elected officials and stakeholders to further enhance the commission's effectiveness and impact for rural Alaskan communities,” the White House said.

Even the commission itself admitted it was surprising for the agency to receive so much attention and responsibility.

“I think that this is unprecedented to have the President of the United States mention the Denali Commission,” Commissioner Julie Kitka told KNOM, “and be willing to engage and have his administration step up the effort to meet community needs.”