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Five Years In The Making: Unalaska Awaits Infrastructure Report Card From IRT

Courtesy Rep. Josh Revak

Unalaska is waiting on a free infrastructure report card, courtesy of the U.S. military. 

That report will be compiled by civil affairs officers, including U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. 

Gabbard, a former Democratic presidential candidate, visited the island as part of a team last week in her capacity as an Army Reserve major, for meetings and an assessment of Unalaska's future infrastructure needs.

While city and tribal officials and Native corporation executives aren't sure where exactly the project will lead, they say it maps a path forward to improving services and facilities. 

One of the primary goals of the Department of Defense is training soldiers for wartime missions. So the department developed a program called Innovative Readiness Training, or IRT, to execute that training while helping host communities at the same time.

Last week's mission to Unalaska provided an opportunity to train the department's civil affairs soldiers, whose wartime mission is to advise their superiors on civilian concerns.

"The group that came out in the IRT mission — their task was to perform an analysis of the community and the infrastructure that we currently have," said City Manager Erin Reinders. 

By infrastructure assessment, Reinders means examining the city's brimming landfill, the Unalaska airport's short runway, and contaminated World War II sites that still need to be cleaned up. But the visitors also looked at shortcomings in health care to slower than average internet speeds.

The U.S. military's work in the Aleutians began with an IRT application by the Qawalangin Tribe some five years ago. It went unanswered until early this year, said Chris Price, the tribe's executive director. 

The original application had a broad focus: It asked for help plotting Unalaska's future from a security, geopolitical, environmental, and health perspective. It also wanted ideas for diversifying the island's economy beyond commercial fishing.

The tribe's application said the program could benefit both Unalaska and the Department of Defense.

For Unalaska, it would provide an opportunity to get fresh eyes on the community and hear new ideas for solutions to the island's infrastructure problems, according to Price.

It also offered an opportunity for the military to see first-hand what the Aleutians would be like as a military theater, as Russia has become increasingly focused on the Arctic and nearby Bering Sea. 

"There's two sides of it," Price said. "There's the side of our community's needs, and then there's their side of it: their training needs and the interests that they have."

In February, in response to the application, the DOD enlisted the California-based 351st Civil Affairs Command in the mission.

A dozen soldiers visited Unalaska last week, while one more worked remotely from Saudi Arabia, to assess the community and its deficits and strengths. Based on the assessment, Reinders said the team will then produce a report laying out its observations and potential solutions for the city, tribe, and the local Native village corporation, Ounalashka Corp.

"I don't think we're married to a specific solution," Reinders said. "We might have had some solutions, but if they have other ideas that help address those underlying needs, perhaps that assessment might include some of those suggestions. Others might help bolster the argument and the need for a project that we've already identified as a community." 

After running for president earlier this year, Gabbard visited Unalaska as a major in the U.S. Army Reserve. 

Gabbard said she volunteered for the mission as part of the governance section of the IRT team, bringing her background in law, policy regulation, and government. 

The group also has public health and emergency management professionals, engineers and water specialists, along with experts from other fields. They met with representatives from the tribe, city, and Ounalashka Corp., as well as the fire and police chiefs, health clinic staff and local youth leaders.

"I think the strengths and the opportunities that exist in this community are great," Gabbard said. "And they are all based in a cohesiveness and a desire to work together to create more opportunity not only for people who live here today, but for the kids and their kids and generations to come. With that kind of cohesiveness, you can accomplish anything."

Gabbard said that improving telecommunications and promoting energy security through geothermal power production at Makushin Volcano are opportunities for the community to build key infrastructure as the Aleutians gain strategic importance. Military planners say that as both Russia and China work to expand their influence in the Arctic, and as marine traffic increases through the Bering Strait, this will lead to commercial opportunities and strategic challenges for the island.

The IRT team spent a week in Unalaska, and it's expected to finalize its report by the end of the month.

Reinders said that while she's unsure if the military will help pay for any of the infrastructure projects identified in their report, the mission did unite the three key local stakeholders who worked with the IRT. 

The city, Qawalangin Tribe, and Ounalashka Corp. signed a memorandum of understanding following the military mission. That agreement maps a path forward for the partners to unite and work together towards some common goals.

"What I'm kind of excited about, frankly, is the fact that we've got this MOU with the tribe and OC — the major landowner in the community — and the city, trying to get on the same page, speaking with one voice, and really kind of uniting around core community issues. I think that that's an exciting thing," Reinders said.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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