I’ve lived in Alaska my entire life but never got involved in the legislative process. That changed this year. My rafting company, Denali View Raft Adventures, is being threatened by a state-sponsored dam proposal on the Susitna River.
Growing up in Talkeetna, I devoted an enormous amount of time getting to know the Susitna and all it has to offer. I caught my first king salmon on the Susitna, I learned how to row a raft on the Su. Now I feel lucky to be able to share those experiences and memories with thousands of visitors from all over the world. So earlier this year, when last-minute funding for the troubled Susitna dam project seemed to come out of the shadows in the final hours of the session, I was paying attention -- and I was outraged.
With only 24 scheduled hours left in the session earlier this year, the House finally released its version of the capital budget. The new draft held the funding for Susitna dam studies at $10 million, as approved by the Senate. But in the final hours, Rep. Stoltze announced that he had made an error in the revised draft and allocated, under our noses, an extra $10 million of taxpayer dollars to bump up Susitna dam funding for a total of $20 million appropriated this year.
After listening to dozens of Alaskans opposing this dam and the wasteful spending associated with it during the House budget hearings and during Alaska Energy Authority’s summer “open houses,” I wonder: Who is Rep. Stoltze actually representing? His last-minute budget bump removes any meaningful opportunity for the public to participate -- or for lawmakers to review the increase. But that is not the biggest concern.
This funding increase props up a project that has yet to prove its viability. Since 2011, the Alaska Energy Authority has been quietly spending hundreds of millions of state dollars to aggressively pursue construction of the Susitna dam, despite serious concerns from residents and legislators that Alaska cannot afford yet another mega-project. The dam, a government-run boondoggle, has continually missed self-imposed deadlines, suffered from gross mismanagement and racked up a huge tab that drags down our state’s dwindling resources.
So when Rep. Stoltze pushed this last-minute funding for a project that the public is seriously concerned about, who was he working for? It certainly was not his constituents or the sportfishing and hunting community in Alaska.
The intact habitat for big game surrounding much of the Susitna River is the most-hunted place in the state. If this dam goes in, our prized hunting and fishing habitat would be drowned and fragmented. That is not something we’re willing to risk for an outdated and risky project. And we’re sure as hell not willing to pay for it. Rep. Stoltze is up for re-election this fall, and I hope that wherever he ends up, he will do a better job listening to his people rather than his political cronies.
State decision-makers must decide in the coming years how many more millions the state will invest to keep this project limping along. Alaska is already burning through budget reserves, with $2 billion in deficit spending this year and finance experts projecting about the same amount in the years to come.
Competing projects like the in-state natural gas pipeline and smaller energy projects that can come on line much sooner, should force legislators and Gov. Parnell to make choices on which projects to support and which to stop funding. One choice, that shouldn’t be hard, is to stop funding the Susitna dam for good. This relic project was a bad idea in the 80s, and it still is. Alaska can do better for its communities. It’s time to stop wasteful spending, and back-channel deals. It’s time to protect our jobs, our hunting and fishing grounds, and our Alaskan way of life.
Matt Kaso and his wife own and operate Denali View Raft Adventures out of Talkeetna.
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