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Classic Alaska resource battle brewing over Wood-Tikchik hydropower

Craig Medred
Alison Eskelin / DNR

Alaska Commissioner of Natural Resources Dan Sullivan, a man known for touting energy development in Alaska, has blocked an Anchorage-based electric co-op from trying to tap hydropower in the largest state park in the United States.

Nuvista Light and Electric Cooperative Inc, a company with ties to the Calista Corp., wanted to explore development of Chikuminuk Lake in the northern portion of the 1.6-million-acre Wood-Tikchik State Park.

Calista is an Alaska Native regional corporation formed under the terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Based in Anchorage, it has 17,300 shareholders, many of whom still live in remote communities in Western Alaska. The regional hub there, Bethel, is starved for an economical power source.

The Alaska Legislature this year appropriated $17.63 million to Nuvista to begin studies on engineering, permitting and licensing for the Chikuminuk project, but Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell in June trimmed the funding to $10 million. Meanwhile, opposition to the project has started to materialize.

Dan Dunaway of Dillingham, one of the founding members of Nushagak-Mulchatna Wood-Tikchik Land Trust, noted in a letter to Parnell earlier this year that two sites for hydroelectric projects -- Lake Elva and Grant Lake -- were identified and set aside in the initial park legislation more than three decades back.

"There is significant opposition to even those projects,” he said. "To add a third hydroelectric project in an unauthorized site in the Park severely calls into question the state’s commitment to create and maintain protected areas for the long term. At minimum, if the Chikuminuk site is studied or considered for development, then the total concept and impacts of hydroelectric development within the Park should be considered as a package...."

Dunaway and others in Western Alaska had pushed the state Department of Natural Resources hard to deny Nuvista's permit. No matter how much money the Legislature might be willing to throw at the project, they argued, the law is the law. State Parks Director Ben Ellis, in the end, agreed with them. He ruled the Natural Resources Department lacks the authority to grant a permit. Before that can happen, he said, the Legislature will have to amend the law.

Nuvista executive director Elaine Brown said Monday the co-op has no plans to appeal. It's headed for the Legislature for a fix.

"We're not going to appeal it this year," she said Monday. "We were planning to go to the Legislature. Now it is mandatory to go the Legislature. At the time they gave us the money, the topic was brought up. So the Legislature knows."

Battle over parks management

Thus the stage is set for what could be a landmark battle over how the 49th state manages state parks, a legacy from when Alaska leaned left instead of right. Wood-Tikchik was established in 1978 during the term of environmentalist Jay Hammond, possibly the most left-leaning Republican governor in U.S. history.

It was Hammond who helped shepherd into law a share-the-wealth scheme called the Alaska Permanent Fund. A wholly socialist idea, it gave and continues to give all Alaska residents -- even those who arrived in the state only a year ago -- their "share" of the oil revenue from Alaska's North Slope. The share is usually over $1,000 a year.

Eight years earlier, under Democratic Gov. Bill Egan, the Legislature had created the half-million-acre Chugach State Park sprawling across the mountains above Anchorage. The Chugach is today the third-largest state park in the nation. It is followed closely in size by the 400,000-acre Kachemak Bay State Park at the end of the Kenai Peninsula, created in 1970 under Egan, and the 325,000-acre Denali State Park on the south slope of the Alaska Range overlooking 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, also known to some as Denali. First designated in 1970, Denali was significantly expanded in 1976 when Hammond was governor.

A lot has changed in Alaska since then. The state began a slide to the right in the 1990s, and by early in the new millennium had become a rock-rib conservative state. Along the way, rural Alaska grew from a place where people still lived almost wholly off the land to a place integrating into the cash economy and the luxuries of modern life -- the vast majority of which require power.

Like the computer on which you are reading this, and the television and the refrigerator and the lights and the water pump and -- even if your home is heated by natural gas -- the ignition system and blower for your furnace, and much more require electricity. Costs for both power and home-heating fuel have risen to astronomical levels over the years in rural Alaska, as Nuvista has noted repeatedly as it probes hydropower opportunities in Wood-Tikchik.

"Residents of the region have the highest energy costs in the nation at $7 to $12 per gallon for diesel heating fuel; and diesel generated electricity is delivered at a cost ranging from $0.58 to $1.05 per kilowatt hour. In less than five years the percentage of income that must be utilized for home heating and electricity has risen from 40 percent total income to over 60 to 75 percent total family income," the Nuvista website notes. "Since 1975, more than 30 reports and studies have been written by various agencies documenting the energy options and needs in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (river delta) Region."

None of these plans have produced cheap power in an area where conflicts between the needs of tomorrow and the preservation of the wilderness of today meet head on.

Wood-Tikchik is an iconic park. Nationally unrivaled, it sprawls west from the tundra of the Nushagak River lowlands on the edge of the Interior to the Wood River Mountains near Bristol Bay. From north to south, more than a half-dozen major lakes -- the biggest up to 45 miles long -- stair-step their way down to the community of Dillingham on the edge of the famous fishing bay, about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Nestled between towering peaks and high-alpine valleys, many of the lakes have been accurately described as "fjord like." Rich with fish that help nourish uplands that support healthy populations of grizzly bears, wolves, caribou and moose, the park was set aside by a conservation-minded Alaska Legislature to protect wild resources.

Nuvista is hoping an energy-minded Legislature will see things differently.

"We continue on with everything we have planned for the year," Brown said. "The only part of our project that was delayed until next year was the geotechnical work ... We still have all of our mapping," cultural studies and more to complete. "We're working on our study plans to deal with FERC," the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, she said.

Brown is optimistic the Legislature will decide that this time development trumps conservation. Dunaway, meanwhile, is fearful of exactly the same thing.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com