WASILLA -- Building a new road to get to the hard-to-reach resources in the wilderness west of the Susitna River would cost at least $257 million, according to a new study released by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
But developing the 6.2 million-acre study area could open up access to coal, oil and gas, gold, hardrock minerals and timber, as well as new recreational opportunities, according to the West Susitna Access Reconnaissance Study.
The state paid consultant HDR Alaska Inc. $250,000 for the study, released Thursday afternoon. It reveals four routes a road could take into the vast, mostly undeveloped country of the western Susitna Valley, an area the size of Vermont and a destination for fishing at remote lodges, subsistence activities, hunting, dog mushing and snowmachining.
The longest route stretches nearly 108 miles from the Little Susitna River to Rainy Pass across 24 bridges, including an imagined 1,640-foot-long span over the Susitna River, according to the study.
The shortest runs 64 miles from the Little Su to Beluga with 13 bridges, including that one over the Susitna. Two others extend from Petersville Road and Oil Well Road to mining areas west of the Upper Skwentna River. A short spur from the Deshka River area was also analyzed.
The estimated price tags on the road projects run to more than $504 million.
But there's no money set aside for any of the work yet, and no immediate prospects for that to change, state officials say.
"You need to look at that main word in the title -- 'reconnaissance.' There's sort of a general sense of that word: what's over there and how can we get there?" said Murray Walsh, the state transportation official overseeing the project. "It's kind of transportation planning at the 30,000-foot level."
The study area runs west of the Parks Highway, south of Denali National Park and Preserve, north of Cook Inlet -- including Beluga and Tyonek -- and east of the Alaska Range. It includes the Susitna Game Flats, a popular waterfowl hunting area, and the Talachulitna River, one of the best sportfishing streams in the state.
Watchdogs in the Susitna Valley were still reading through the hefty study document on Friday. Several said they weren't ready to comment.
Trapper Creek resident Rick Leo, a critic of the road and logging plans for the Susitna Valley, died in a car accident near Talkeetna last month. Last year, Leo told the Daily News that the road represented just one more threat to a wild place that lets urban residents of Southcentral "have access to Alaska."
The study released this week marks the latest step in a larger, 10-year-old state initiative dubbed "Roads to Resources," launched during the administration of former Gov. Frank Murkowski, that also includes proposed roads to mining and oil and gas prospects at Tanana, Umiat and Ambler.
HDR conducted no field work and did not include public involvement on the Susitna study. Instead, the consultant relied on existing information and interviews with state agencies and resource-industry stakeholders including Cook Inlet Region Inc., oil and gas companies, mining companies and coal developers including PacRim Coal, LP, developer of a huge proposed mine near Tyonek and Beluga.
The state knew from talking with mining, oil and gas and other energy companies "that there was an awful lot of interest in potential over there," Walsh said. "So we wanted to document that along with some of the things that might not have as much glamour associated with them such as forestry and recreation."
The study found the road could open up previously hard-to-access areas for recreation but also potentially detract from the wilderness qualities that draw people there in the first place. Timber sales in the area could also increase, especially if the 763,000-acre proposed Susitna State Forest gets legislative approval.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game generally supports the road, the study says, but warned an influx of anglers could lead to new sport fishing regulations on area rivers.
The bulk of the study talks about resources. There are more than 3,000 active mining claims for copper, gold, silver and molybdenum -- possibly diamonds -- in the study area, many in the Alaska Range near Rainy Pass. There is active oil and gas exploration in the area as well as numerous coalfields.
A potentially major coal prospect west of Skwentna could justify the western Susitna Valley road -- maybe a railroad -- all by itself, Walsh said.
PacRim "'(c)onsiders an access road very useful and is strongly supportive'," according to the study. "Has previously considered rail or road links, but is cost prohibitive if self-financed."
Linc Energy Inc., with two underground coal gasification exploration licenses across nearly 100,000 acres in the area, called the access road "100% helpful" and "strongly endorsed."
CIRI, on the other hand, doesn't support a road despite having numerous projects in the Beluga and Tyonek areas. The regional corporation prefers the construction of a deep-water port, the study says.
If the project does move forward, the public and other stakeholders will be involved, according to the study.
For now, the state is asking for public comment. For more information, go to dot.alaska.gov/westsusitna
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER