Liquidating the Ice Curtain: Federal Scout Readiness Centers Are Readied for Civilian Life
As part of a divestiture program that began in 2013, the Alaska Army National Guard has and continues to give away dozens of buildings across the state that are no longer needed.
The Alaska Army National Guard is giving away property. Dozens of buildings across the state are no longer needed. The divestiture program began in 2013 with a building given to Shaktoolik Native Corporation, and in 2021 more sites were handed over to communities than in any single year.
A change in Department of Defense (DOD) mission requirements in 2011 meant much of the National Guard’s property was no longer necessary. Among these facilities were the Federal Scout Readiness Centers, which were put in place during the Cold War as part of early warning measures and strategic defense. In many ways, leaders at the time viewed Alaska as a “tripwire” for any Soviet aggression in the Arctic that directly threatened North America.
The Scout Battalions, which were the United States’ northern frontline, were composed primarily of Alaska Native service members originally recruited during World War II to patrol northern and western Alaska. These members of the Alaska Territorial Guard, which was disbanded in 1947, continued to serve as part of the Alaska Army National Guard’s Scout Battalions of the 297th Infantry, often referred to simply as Alaska Scouts.
“The Scouts were men and women who used centuries-old Arctic skills to spot probing Soviets,” explains Tom Wolforth, a cultural resources manager and tribal liaison for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA). “Their place in the US military was so valuable and respected that they sometimes trained the Army’s elite special operations forces sent up from the Lower 48.”
With the onset of the Cold War, the membership in Alaska Scouts boomed, prompting the construction of the Federal Scout Readiness Centers. These 20-foot by 60-foot metal buildings were constructed between 1959 and 1961. Similar 30-foot by 40-foot buildings constructed in the ’70s accommodated the expanding National Guard presence in many Alaska villages.
“The Scout Battalions were one of the United States’ first lines of defense against Soviet aggression, and the armories were used as mobilization centers for state and federal activation of troops,” explains Kevin Vakalis, a realty officer with the DMVA Facility Maintenance Office who has been working with the divestiture program since 2018. “It was our Ice Curtain to combat the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union.”
The Curtain Comes Down
Because of its strategic location, Alaska saw significant amounts of military construction as tension between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated and fears of nuclear war hung heavy. The Cold War was one of the most important forces in the development of the territory and state, according to a report by the US Army Corps of Engineers–Alaska District.
While the divestiture of Federal Scout Readiness Centers in Alaska didn’t begin in 2011, many military facilities were closed before the end of the Cold War due to improved technologies, new weapons systems replacing obsolete systems, cost reduction goals, and changes in strategy. Before 1989, about 150 Cold War facilities in Alaska were closed and abandoned—though not all of these were Federal Scout Readiness Centers.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War in 1991 led to further military drawdown in Alaska, resulting in even more facilities being closed. Among these were a significant number of the Federal Scout Readiness Centers, many of which were made obsolete due to significant advancements in satellite technology, Vakalis explains.
Vakalis says that shutting down each of these facilities is similar—though smaller in scale—to a base realignment process. Once a facility has been identified and approved for divestiture, it must go through a rigorous environmental baseline survey process to ensure that the property poses no threat to health and safety.
“It’s pretty typical out in the villages for a little bit of diesel to be spilled here and there,” Vakalis explains, “so we’ve got to go out and do soil sampling and make sure that everything is clean. The DMVA’s environmental team have been stellar in their performance and have won awards on a national level for their efforts.”
There is also a lengthy process to determine to whom the facility will be given. First in line is the DOD, then the Department of Justice, and finally it is opened up to other federal entities. If there is no federal need, it creates the potential of giving the property to the local community.
Vakalis says that the National Guard talks with tribal entities, Native corporations, and the city government, if there is one, about how the building might best serve the community and to whom it should be given.
“We want them to actually put together a resolution that all qualifying parties have all agreed on,” Vakalis says. “Once the community has agreed, it makes it easier for everybody else down the chain to facilitate a successful transfer.”
“The cost of constructing anything new out in the villages is ten times what it is pretty much anywhere else… The cost is just super exorbitant and most of the villages don’t have a lot of money kicking around to be able to construct new buildings.”
Unalakleet Native Corporation took possession of the local armory to use as a maintenance warehouse.
The key component to the agreement among the stakeholders is that the building must continue to be used in the service of the public.
“As long as that’s happening, there’s a disposal process that will allow them to have it for free,” Vakalis says, noting that in an event that nobody wants the building, it is auctioned off to the highest bidder. This has yet to happen.
Divested armories are now being used as search and rescue staging areas, community centers, administrative offices, and for Village Public Safety Officer programs. The one in Fort Yukon was donated in 2019 to the school district. The building was moved onto school property and now serves as additional classroom space.
“We’re currently working on transferring over the Tununak armory to become the new washateria for the town because theirs burned down,” Vakalis says. “There’s just so many things that these buildings are being used for.”
In Unalakleet, the armory is being used as a maintenance warehouse by the Unalakleet Native Corporation.
“It’s really useful because a lot of times there’s not a lot of storage space in villages,” says Mark Johnson, the CEO of the Unalakleet Native Corporation. “We just happen to have a number of maintenance projects going on and we needed to order materials for.”
The extra storage space is more than convenient. It allows the corporation to bulk order more materials, which helps take the edge off the extraordinary prices paid for getting supplies to the remote village.
“We can order them at a better rate and have them shipped in for a better rate,” Johnson says, “so ultimately it should save some money for the corporation, which in turn benefits the community.”
Johnson explains that while the building should save the corporation money, it would have been difficult to build something similar due to the prohibitively high costs of construction in remote Alaska villages.
“You take on the role of maintaining the building, which there is a cost to maintaining it. But I think the benefits outweigh the cost of having to maintain it compared to if you had to build a building of a similar size,” Johnson says.
While the Federal Scout Readiness Centers aren’t fancy buildings, they still provide welcome opportunities in rural Alaska communities where the cost of construction is exceptionally high.
“The cost of constructing anything new out in the villages is ten times what it is pretty much anywhere else,” Vakalis says. “The cost is just super exorbitant and most of the villages don’t have a lot of money kicking around to be able to construct new buildings.”
Vakalis explains that the National Guard prefers to have the buildings in top shape when they’re handed over. Ideally, once the paperwork is all done, it’s simply a flip of a switch, but the reality is that facilities are in various conditions due to the harsh environment of rural Alaska, especially the Arctic.
An Army Corps of Engineers document explains: “Vandalism and the severe Alaskan climate combined to reduce the value of many of the sites. Numerous sites have a large clean-up cost due to vandalism, theft, and deterioration.”
Some of that risk of damage is mitigated by disconnecting pipes, draining fuel, and scrubbing them down ahead of their environmental baseline survey.
In Unalakleet, the facility was still in good condition and offered protection from the elements. Additionally, the divesting process was smooth and easy, Johnson says, noting that the National Guard had done a good job of handling the transaction.
“This process can take from one to many years depending on land title and contamination cleanup issues. Each site is unique and individualized,” Vakalis explains. “The DMVA, along with the US Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and General Services Administration continue to move the process along to ensure the ultimate goal of continued use to benefit the local communities.”
“We do our best to upkeep them,” Vakalis adds, noting that National Guard members are dispatched to check the facilities even after they are decommissioned.
Not all of the Federal Scout Readiness Centers have been pulled out of use. Current mission needs require eighteen locations to remain operational. They are located in Anchorage, Bethel, Fairbanks, Hooper Bay, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, Kipnuk, Klawock, Kodiak, Kotzebue, Kwethluk, Nome, Quinhagak, Sitka, Utqiaġvik, Valdez, and Wasilla.
Thirty-nine out of seventy-nine sites remain to be divested and are in various stages of the federal disposal process. Each divestiture is unique and takes tens to thousands of working hours by state, federal, and contract employees from environmental action to title transfer, Vakalis says.
“There’s been an awful lot of time invested in getting these armories into the hands of the communities,” he says, “and it’s really, really great to see the communities receiving these properties and utilizing them for public gain.”
This year the Alaska Railroad is celebrating 100 years of transportation people and cargo around Alaska. While the railroad is one of the states oldest transporters, it certainly isn’t the only one, and in this issue of Alaska Business we also check in on the Marine Highway, Span Alaska, and the White Pass & Yukon Route. For those interested in Southeast, our focus on that region provides updates on Kensington Mine, Tongass FCU, the troll fishery, and Juneau’s growing landfill.