Wrangell to conduct survey work on former Institute property

The borough is looking to move forward with its plan to develop residential lots on the site of the former Bureau of Indian Affairs Wrangell Institute boarding school, while also fulfilling the Department of the Interior’s mandate that former boarding school sites be inspected for human remains.

The federal push came after the discovery earlier this year of 215 unmarked graves in British Columbia at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school, and the fear that unknown burial sites could exist at American Indian and Alaska Native school sites around the country, whether the schools were run by the BIA or religious orders.

Interim Borough Manager Jeff Good met with a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and also the State Historic Preservation Office to learn the scope of a site survey that would fulfill the Department of the Interior’s initiative to review the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.

The borough is going to have an archeological survey done of the Institute property, Good said, using the same company that conducted the initial survey of the site, R & M Engineering based in Ketchikan.

Good said the company will conduct three-dimensional electromagnetic resistivity, or resistance, surveys that will produce high-resolution images of subsurface contamination zones and local geologic features.

“You put probes in the ground and it lets you see below the ground,” Good said. “Ground-penetrating radar doesn’t work well here because (of) its high moisture content, and with all the trees it’s hard to get over there.”

The borough also discussed search dogs as well, Good said.

Mayor Steve Prysunka said the dogs are specially trained to look for historic remains.

“I have a cadaver dog. They are trained to look for more recent remains. It’s two different disciplines,” Prysunka said. A canine search team would be volunteer-based, Prysunka said. “The best we can do is pay the expenses. They volunteer their time.”

Good said the borough is working with the state archeologist to figure out a timeline for survey work.

Carol Rushmore, zoning administrator, said the actual work probably won’t get underway until after the New Year, and estimates the survey cost at $24,000 to $30,000. “We’re going to be doing this in phases because it’s such an unknown.”

The State Historic Preservation Office and Army Corps each have specific requirements, Rushmore said. The borough is trying to start with an initial assessment and archaeological survey required for the Corps’ permit for wetlands fill to ready the property for residential development.

“The development that we’re pursuing right now is the north half of the property. The full subdivision is about 40 lots, but our initial Phase One of the subdivision will be 20 lots,” Rushmore said. “However, we were asking for the Corps permit for the entire proposed development of 40 lots.”

The former school property covers 134 acres.

Rushmore said while the Corps at this time only requires the borough to conduct an archaeological survey of the land that will be developed for roads and utilities, the state office “has a broader viewpoint, especially in light of the Department of the Interior’s investigation of all Native boarding schools across the country.

Capital Facilities Director Amber Al-Haddad said the initial contract was with R & M Engineering to survey for the subdivision, and help the borough assess the cost for developing roads and utilities so the borough could move forward and sell the lots. “Under that contract, they’re making a modification to add this archaeological work,” she said.

The borough is paying for the archaeological survey, Rushmore said. The borough has not received any funds from the Department of the Interior, which is under a deadline of April 1, 2022, to submit a final written report to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on its review of the Native and Indian boarding school program.

Good said the residential development plan remains delayed until the borough can meet the Army Corps and state requirements.


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