Somewhere in a huge, mainly undeveloped swath of the western Susitna Valley -- prime Alaska land popular for hunting, fishing and snowmachining -- the state is thinking about building a road.
Specifically, a "road to resources."
That catchphrase, with echoes back to the Murkowski administration, is now embedded in a priority program of Gov. Sean Parnell. His administration has been looking at various road projects into new areas of the state to boost prospects for mining, logging and oil and gas development. It plans to spend $28.5 million on the effort this year and is seeking another $18 million from the Legislature for the next budget year.
Last week, the state announced an intriguing, and controversial, addition to its potential road list: the west Susitna River Valley.
The state has hired planning and engineering consultants HDR Alaska for $207,000 to study access into an area roughly south of Denali National Park and Preserve, west of the Susitna River, north of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and east of the Alaska Range, said Murray Walsh, Roads to Resources manager for the state Department of Transportation.
This preliminary study aims to document resource potential, possible bridge locations over the Susitna River, and the best route to reach the river from existing roads. It doesn't commit the state to a particular project or even to build a west Susitna road at all.
"In the resource study area west of the Susitna, there's certainly all kinds of mineralization. Precious minerals. Base metals. Coal. There's coal gasification possibilities where you actually cause a reaction in the coal underground that gives off a usable gas that you can then burn," Walsh said. "There's geothermal resources out there. There's certainly timber and even land that has agricultural potential."
The governor also is proposing to create a Susitna State Forest and make it easier to hold timber sales in the area.
The study area extends to the west side of Cook Inlet, where independent oil and gas companies are drilling exploratory wells and conducting 3-D seismic tests in what boosters hope will become a mini-boom. The area is promising but lacks needed infrastructure, including roads, state oil and gas officials have said.
Other prospects in the study area include a coal mine near Skwentna, Walsh said. The Mat-Su Borough Assembly just voted to support coal development there.
A road could open up land for recreation, though it's far too early to say whether the public would get ready access or whether it would be tightly managed by industry, he said.
The resource evaluation will examine whether private projects are far enough along to justify state investment in a road. If one were built, an industrial partner likely would cover most construction costs, with the state role perhaps focused on planning, design work and financing, Walsh said.
A model for such a project is the road to the Red Dog mine in Northwest Alaska, Walsh said. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has invested some $267 million into a road, dock, conveyor loading system and other infrastructure supporting Red Dog, AIDEA says on its Web site. Industrial users are repaying the public corporation. NANA Regional Corp. owns the land for Red Dog and Teck Alaska Inc. operates the mine, the largest producer of zinc concentrate in the world.
WHY CUT THE TREES?
The possibility of a new road quickly stirs up resistance from those who like their wild stretch of Alaska the way it is, reachable by foot, boat, plane, dog sled, snowmachine and four-wheeler.
Richard Leo, president of the Trapper Creek Community Council board, lives on his homestead way off the Parks Highway. He's been hauling sacks of concrete mix there by dogsled to be ready for summer, when his grown sons plan to build his home a foundation.
Leo said residents already are in turmoil over a push for logging in the upper Susitna Valley as well as a plan by the Department of Natural Resources to develop a residential subdivision called Tundra Isles, offering a maximum of 1,500 parcels for sale off Petersville Road. After a meeting in Trapper Creek on Jan. 17, DNR says it has decided to rethink the project but is not abandoning it.
"Why would you turn the Valley into a parking lot?" Leo asks in an interview. "Why would you cut the trees? Why would you subdivide everything?"
As he sees it, a road to develop resources is one more threat.
"The point of this magnificent landscape is that it's accessible wilderness. It's hunting. It's fishing. It's recreation. It's snowmachining. It's the opportunity for the majority of (the) Alaskan populace, based in Anchorage, Wasilla and Palmer, to have access to Alaska," Leo said.
"And here are these grandiose projects that would utterly devastate the quality of Alaskan life that those of us who either know the Susitna Valley, live here or have visited value most about it."
Tourists on flightseeing trips over Denali don't want to see logged areas -- they want a pristine view, he said. Homes and cabins are scattered throughout the remote valley, he said.
Any state road project would include "community outreach and a sincere effort to see what impacts and effects would occur," Walsh told the Daily News in a follow-up email.
TOO BIG TO BUILD?
Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, questioned whether the Parnell administration will be able to complete these huge, and hugely expensive, roads in remote areas.
She has issued a report on the matter titled, "Easy to Start, Impossible to Finish," which she updated last year.
The projects win quick favor among development interests and early studies provide work for consultants, she said. But they also upset land owners who wonder if they should sell their property and are unlikely to ever become reality, Epstein said.
Among the projects being studied is a road to the village of Tanana near Fairbanks. In the past, that road was billed as the first leg of a hugely expensive road to Nome, though Walsh says it's now a project in its own right to open up the Interior. This year's budget includes $10 million to study the Tanana road and another $10 million to study a road to the Umiat area in the northwest foothills of the Brooks Range, which is believed to contain vast amounts of oil and gas.
Walsh, who has been in his job just more than six months and before that worked as a planning consultant, said he was familiar with the concerns but believes the roads program can do public good by creating opportunity and jobs in new areas.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as far as I am concerned," he said.
Any major road would require years of planning, environmental reviews and permit approvals, he said. And as was true with the road to Red Dog, industry must step up too.
"Unless the state of Alaska has a couple of billion to spare, which we arguably don't right now, then you've got to use some other people's money," Walsh said.
A few small Roads to Resources projects have been completed, he said. A seven-mile, single-lane logging road was built on Gravina Island near Ketchikan, a project that began during the Murkowski administration. This year's state budget includes money for work toward another logging road to additional state timber lands on the island.
Earlier, the state used mostly federal dollars to build the Gravina Island Highway, a road that was supposed to lead to a bridge between the island, where the airport is located, and the city of Ketchikan. But the bridge, which came to be nationally derided as a Bridge to Nowhere, lost its earmarked federal funding and was cancelled by then-Gov. Sarah Palin. The road, to a beach, was already in progress; the state completed the Gravina Island Highway in 2008.
DOT says the road still opens up public access on the island.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.