Lodge owners and activists launch $200,000 campaign to block state’s Susitna road proposal

A new Alaska business-aligned coalition says it’s launched a six-figure advertising campaign to defeat a major proposed road that members fear could damage and disrupt fish and wildlife in the Susitna Valley, northwest of Anchorage.

The road’s proponents, including Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state agency advancing the project, say they’re still gathering information and are analyzing the West Susitna Access Road’s benefits in potential jobs and state revenue compared to costs to fish, wildlife and tourism.

But members of the Alaska Range Alliance aren’t waiting for the results of that analysis to launch their $200,000 campaign, with the mission of blocking the $350 million project before it starts.

“The goal is absolutely to kill it. There’s no question that none of us want a road out there,” said alliance board member Steve Perrins, who runs the “rustic-luxury” Rainy Pass Lodge in the Susitna Valley backcountry — which he says is roughly 8 miles from where the proposed road would end. “We want this done and over, quick.”

The 100-mile project would run through fish and wildlife habitat to an area that’s attractive to mining companies, in the foothills of the Alaska Range west of the Susitna River. So far, there’s no official guarantee of public access.

Dunleavy has backed the road project. But alliance members say their campaign, at least for now, is targeting the state agency advancing the plan, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA.

AIDEA last month applied for a key Clean Water Act permit for the road, and the agency has previously been a target for environmental and conservation groups. Those groups have criticized the agency for pursuing what they deem to be marginal resource extraction projects in areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the alliance, in its campaign announcement this week, called the Susitna road project an “AIDEA dumpster fire.”

[As federal permit review starts on road into West Susitna backcountry, public access remains priority]

Political leaders tend to be pro-development in the deeply conservative Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where the new road project would be located, and the local assembly has endorsed AIDEA’s permitting process.

At least one business along the route, Skwentna Roadhouse, supports the proposal, and it has a lobbyist on a $55,000 contract whose work includes pushing the project.

But the borough assembly has also heard testimony from dozens of people opposed to the road, and its critics include some conservative business owners like Perrins, who is otherwise aligned with Dunleavy and once appeared in a campaign ad aimed at boosting Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan.

“We’re businessmen that have to be able to bob and weave with things,” said Perrins, who stars in the new TV ads opposing the road. “These mining companies will totally run you over.”

Alan Weitzner, AIDEA’s executive director, said the alliance’s campaign itself will boost public awareness of the proposed development, “which I think is a good thing.”

But in a phone interview, he disputed one argument made in the alliance’s television ads: that AIDEA is trying to keep its plans for the road a secret.

“At every phase AIDEA’s been involved in the road development, it has had public engagement,” Weitzner said. “We are trying to make sure that there’s awareness out there, and if there are ways we can be better about it, I’m interested in trying to understand how we can do that.”

Conservation groups have previously announced their opposition to the West Susitna proposal. But the broadening of their coalition, to include conservatives and businessmen, is starting to echo the debate over the Pebble prospect in Southwest Alaska.

Indigenous activists, commercial fishing groups and wealthy lodge owners and clients banded together to wage that largely successful fight against the huge mine proposed in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, which hosts one of the world’s largest salmon fisheries.

The Alaska Range Alliance, which launched its slick television, radio and digital ads this week, includes multiple veterans of the Pebble debate. Anders Gustafson, who led a key group opposed to Pebble, is the alliance’s executive director.

Scott Kendall, a longtime attorney for Pebble opponents, is the alliance’s legal counsel.

Other board members include fisherman and retired labor leader Vince Beltrami, the former owner of an Anchorage snowmachine dealership and Mike Overcast, a co-owner of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge. The lodge owners said they’ve raised money from both businesses and some of their customers.

Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, also co-owned by Olympic medal-winning skier Tommy Moe, sells heli-skiing and king salmon fishing trips in the area that would be traversed by the road. In a phone interview from the lodge, Overcast said his opposition is about protecting the region’s salmon habitat, which draws tourists to Alaska from around the world.

“I’m not a political person, and I’m not interested in being in politics,” Overcast said. “But when something comes so close to you, you don’t have a choice to react.”

As of February, AIDEA had spent roughly $625,000 developing the road proposal, with $8.5 million budgeted by the Legislature at Dunleavy’s request.

The governor’s office also recently hired a consulting firm, McKinley Research, to compare the economic impact of Susitna Valley tourism businesses with the potential value of development in the Yentna Mining District, where the road would end. The Clean Water Act permitting process, Weitzner said, should help draw out more information about the road’s potential impacts.

“What we have seen with road development and access is when you’re able to initiate and get the permitting in process, it becomes a little more real for the parties that would be investing resources and leading to that economic development,” he said. “The permitting lets it prove out what that economic process and benefit can be. We’re asking to give us that opportunity.”

Perrins said he’s worried the results of the economic analysis are a forgone conclusion, citing McKinley Research’s work for the mining industry and the fact that one of the first questions he saw as part of the study was about potential benefits from the road.

“That doesn’t sound nonpartisan to me,” he said.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.