More federal funding still possible in Southeast sustainability grants

An official with a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that has awarded more than $820,000 to the Wrangell borough, Forest Service and tribe said more could be on the way.

The Wrangell Cooperative Association was awarded $620,000 from the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, part of a $25 million federal grant program intended to help diversify the economy of Southeast communities.

The borough was awarded $100,000 to manage lands for the improvement of wild blueberry harvests and $103,000 for trail upkeep.

The program also provided funding for four positions at the Forest Service Wrangell Ranger District — a recreation manager, wilderness and recreation technician, Anan Wildlife Observatory crew manager and a fisheries biologist — which the Forest Service wants to fill for the summer season.

Program coordinator Barb Miranda said there are other Wrangell projects in the works for possible funding.

“We are holding those a little bit close, because we are working with the project pipeline, (building) the paperwork, and … we will be announcing the rest of the investments shortly,” Miranda said April 1.

Among the borough’s requests is a carbon-offset program, setting aside timber land to offset carbon emissions elsewhere, and parks projects.

Miranda said the $25 million is an initial investment into the communities of Southeast and won’t be the last. The agency received an estimated $276 million in funding proposals when it announced the effort last fall.

Spruce Root, a nonprofit that funds entrepreneurs throughout Southeast, was granted $740,000 in this round. The Juneau-based organization provides seed money for new endeavors, such as its award to Kassee Schlotzhauer in 2020 for a Wrangell subsistence-giving program, which allowed her to purchase a commercial vacuum sealer and mass processing tables for fish.

Southeast Conference will get $1 million from the USDA program for a regional biomass strategy and a demonstration project to manufacture wood pellets.

“Indirectly in the future, this could inform biomass solutions for Wrangell, if they are adopting pellets as a fuel source for their heat loads. We’re looking at a smaller size production unit,” Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference, said April 1.

“We’re looking at a unit the size of a shipping container — community-sized for production,” he said.

Venables said Southeast Conference will begin research and development for the wood pellet-making machinery to be located in Ketchikan, and expects it will take a year to 18 months to “really get into production.”

The operation would have the capacity to manufacture about 200 tons of pellets per year, he said.

At full production, the 200-ton demonstration project could replace about 22,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, according to a 2016 Forest Service report.

A fair bit of research will need to happen, as well as tackling the supply chain issue to get equipment in and set up, and ultimately “develop a business plan to see under which scenarios this could be utilized in rural communities” to lower the cost of energy by using local waste streams, Venables said.

The project will cost between $1.4 million and $1.6 million, funded through the federal sustainability program and hopefully, another $600,000 federal grant from the Forest Service’s “Wood Innovations” program, he said.

In addition to providing funds for innovation and sustainable development projects, Miranda said the Department of Agriculture is learning to streamline federal funding efforts to better serve the small communities of Southeast, and address equity issues like match requirements.

“Some of the federal requirements around matches are hard for small communities that don’t have a lot of capital,” she said. The department is exploring the possibility of waiving a percentage of required matches.

“That makes a difference if you live in a small community,” she said.

A funding structure “designed for the entire nation needs to be equitable for rural communities,” Miranda said. “We have more barriers coming up with a cash match.”


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