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Village workers begin hands-on construction of $11 million road to Tanana

Jerzy Shedlock
Kevin Powell

With summer firefighting jobs in short supply, the mayor for the village of Tanana said she welcomes well-paid construction work created by an $11 million effort to link the remote community to the Alaska road system. 

Work began on 20 miles of new road in July and is expected to be completed by fall or winter of 2015, according to the state Transportation Department. About 130 miles air miles west of Fairbanks, Tanana is currently only accessible by plane, river and snowmachine.

Two construction crews are clearing Alaska wilderness from opposite directions: The main contractor in Manley and a group of locals downriver in Tanana. The single-lane gravel road will fall just short of the Athabascan community of 250 people.

The span stops at the south banks of the Yukon River, about six miles shy of the village. The crews will work on the thoroughfare until freeze-up.

The road to Tanana is the first state project connecting a rural community to the road system since the road into Whittier was built 15 years ago, according to the Transportation Department. 

Tanana’s 16 workers make up two evenly split crews -- some workers are just out of high school -- and the village is paying up to $25 an hour during five-day shifts. The work is physically taxing. It consists of chopping down trees and brush with chainsaws and hauling it to staging areas by four-wheeler.

“The young guys can hang with it,” said Pat Moore, a Tanana city employee overseeing the memorandum of agreement between the state and village. The jobs are welcome in the village, he said, “and the younger gentlemen will have shoulders on them by the time they’re done.”

Tanana Mayor Donna Folger said the project has been good for the community given a lack of job opportunities this summer due to a below-average wildfire season, she said. Many villagers work on seasonal firefighting crews.

In 2013, 613 fires burned 1.3 million acres, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. This year, 364 fires have burned a faction of that total -- 231,951 acres as of Monday. Persistent rainfall statewide has kept Alaska clear of smoke and fire, with the exception of the Funny River Road fire on the Kenai Peninsula.

Folger contends there was a bit of push and pull between villagers wanting to form a team of firefighters to travel Outside. Some of the qualified people are already busy on the road project. Luckily, on Friday, others from nearby villages joined the call for help. Now a 19-person crew is battling wildfires in California.

According to the state Department of Workforce and Labor Development, 30 percent of Tanana was unemployed in 2012, the latest numbers available. And only a little more than half its villagers had year-round work. That’s a stark difference when compared with the statewide unemployment rate, which was 6.5 percent in July.

Not everyone in Tanana supports the road project. Folger said the split comes from hunters concerned about the road bringing people into subsistence lands. The road will pass particularly close to Fish Lake, a habitat for moose and waterfowl.

The project received resolutions of support from the Tanana City and Tribal councils, the Manley Traditional Council and the Ruby Tribal Council.

“Once the road is finished, everyone -- I'm hoping -- will be happy that we have a cheaper way to get to Fairbanks,” Folger said. “Right now it’s positive. Our people get to work, make money.”

It’s unclear how long the jobs will last. The Tanana crew is currently clearing its second staging area, a 10-acre parcel farther inland from the bank of the Yukon and the first six-acre staging area. The crew climbs up that river bank after traveling six miles on boat.

When the work is finished, job opportunities will diminish. The logs in the staging areas are being kept for construction and to heat homes. Most villagers burn wood in the winter, though most have oil stove backups.

Moore hopes the local crews can help haul the logs back to Tanana, but the 12-mile round-trip will require heavy equipment. “I don’t know how much local work that’ll entail. We need some big vehicles; we’re not going to be able to do that by snowmachine.”

The Manley-based crew under the supervision of Cruz Construction has large equipment. They are mowing through about a half-mile of Alaska bush per day using mulchers, bulldozers, excavators and other heavy equipment, company president Dave Cruz said.

He has hired three Manley locals to lend a hand and plans to employ about three more.

“We do a lot of rural jobs, and one thing out there that is apparent, there’s a good amount of people that have experience with equipment,” Cruz said. His company is in Palmer. “They’re definitely eager for work, especially if they can stay close to their homes. Their experience helps us out tremendously.”

The road may one day be expanded to reach Tanana. Alaska Department of Transportation public information officer Meadow Bailey said DOT is gearing up to start a “reconnaissance study" on the west side of the river.

“They’re won’t be a bridge across the Yukon but there could be an ice bridge, and it’d be an easier access route in the winter," Bailey said.