PALMER — A nearly decade-old proposal for a 100-mile road through the rugged backcountry west of the Susitna River is moving forward again, generating optimism for new mines and public access but also concerns over potential threats to a sprawling wildlife-rich remote area close to Alaska’s urban center.
Currently estimated at more than $350 million, the West Susitna Access road as proposed would run from Point MacKenzie to the Yentna Mining District in the Alaska Range, where numerous mining companies are eying potentially lucrative deposits. Chief among them: Nova Minerals Ltd., an Australian mining company that considers a promising Yentna district exploration project the flagship of its portfolio
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority — a public corporation of the state created in 1967 with a history of megaprojects, some failed — is leading the project. AIDEA partnered with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough as well as Nova on earlier phases of the project.
Stalled since March 2021, the road proposal last fall received a $8.5 million legislative appropriation, part of a package requested by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
Now work on the project’s third phase, the two-year process of getting federal wetlands permits, is starting after the Mat-Su Borough Assembly voted to support AIDEA’s work on the permits.
Supporters say the road would access not only mines but coal and timber as well as open up new hunting and snowmachining grounds.
It’s also obviously important for mine development, allowing Nova and other mining companies to transport fuel, ore, and goods and services from the road system, said Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.
“When you have a mining project not on the road system or in a municipality, you’ve got man camps, medics -- you have to build a little town,” Skibinski said. “Having roads versus airlifting everything in is huge.”
‘Devastating’ to lodges
The road would bisect a roughly Vermont-sized area dotted with cabins and lodges that depend on the remote character of the area, a destination for fishing, hunting, subsistence activities, dog mushing and snowmachining.
Critics including wilderness lodge owners say that, given the lack of immediate timber or coal prospects, the road would basically subsidize foreign mining activities at the expense of the remote character and fish and wildlife that attract people now.
The road as proposed could come within a mile and a half of Winterlake Lodge along the Iditarod Trail at Finger Lake.
The intrusion and activity could potentially destroy their business but also other tourism-dependent companies like air taxis, said lodge owners Carl and Kirsten Dixon.
“The western Susitna Valley, because of its proximity to an urban place, Anchorage, has always been a little jewel for all of us,” Kirsten Dixon said. “All of that promise of the Alaskan way of life is about to be threatened.”
Rainy Pass Lodge, an Iditarod checkpoint some 125 miles northwest of Anchorage that’s operated continuously since 1937, relies on giving guests a look at “the real remote Alaska,” owner Steve Perrins said.
The road threatens to undermine the rural character of the area and add hunting pressure on moose that lodge guides and others now lead hunts for, Perrins said.
“It will absolutely kill our business,” he said. “It’s devastating for us.”
‘Industrial access, multi-use corridor’
Preliminary plans call for more than 150 water crossings, including a span across the Susitna River — an engineering feat that would provide easy road access to the western side of the valley for the first time.
More than a third of the 25,000-square-mile Matanuska-Susitna Borough lies west of the Susitna River.
The current proposed route runs from the end of Ayrshire Road on Point MacKenzie to near the confluence of Portage Creek and the Skwentna River. A little over half of the proposed route would follow the proposed Donlin Gold gas pipeline route. AIDEA officials say the projects are not otherwise connected.
Plans for the project first surfaced in 2013 as part of the Roads to Resources study commissioned by then Gov. Sean Parnell. In 2019, AIDEA and the borough signed an agreement that provided a partnership framework for a phased feasibility analysis of the West Susitna Access Road.
Nova Minerals joined the partnership in 2020.
AIDEA has spent $625,000 on the project so far, according to AIDEA executive director Alan Weitzner.
Dozens of people, many of them opposing the project, testified before the Mat-Su Borough Assembly in meetings in December before the assembly voted to let AIDEA move forward with wetlands permitting.
The assembly also approved $50,000 for additional public engagement. The assembly will receive a summary of the comments and information collected in April, borough officials say.
Assembly approval was necessary to move forward under statute that requires AIDEA to get local support, according to Weitzner. That allowed them to hire contractors to help with the wetlands permitting process.
Because the project crosses borough land, the assembly will also have a say in future decisions about the project.
A number of assembly members made it clear they were not voting to support the road proposal, just to let it move forward through the federal process, which comes with significant opportunities for public input.
“So I don’t know if this project is ever going to happen. I don’t even know if it should happen,” deputy mayor Jesse Sumner said during the Dec. 21 meeting when the assembly voted to support the next phase. “But I know that saying people can’t even study projects in the Mat-Su Borough is going to have a really chilling effect on economic development here.”
Extent of public access unclear
One of the persistent questions surrounding the project concerns just how much of the road will be open to the public.
That’s not yet clear, AIDEA director Weitzner said in an interview last week.
Current plans call for public access to end at the Susitna River crossing. That leaves another roughly 70 miles of private road.
AIDEA is working with the borough to understand what safety improvements would be triggered by public access and how that “works ultimately with industrial use,” Weitzner said. There are also questions about how the road would be maintained.
The amount of road to be public won’t be less than 30 miles, he said.
That would put the end of public access at Susitna Station, once the site of Dena’ina village Tsat’ukegh and later a bustling mining town 20 miles by boat or snowmachine from Cook Inlet along the Susitna.
Jeff Hanson, a retired postal carrier, bought a cabin in the Susitna Station area in the 1980s and then built two more, a labor-intensive process hauling materials by snowmachine.
If the road gets built as planned, drivers would be a football toss away from Hanson’s cabin. He voiced concerns about theft, trash and junked cars after seeing what people do “because of lack of respect” at places like Jim Creek, a notorious party spot near Palmer. He likens the situation to the Denali Highway, where four-wheelers fan out from the road.
Hanson, who said he’s not opposed to expansion, thinks the road project seems like another waste of state money, especially if much of the access will be private.
“That’s the problem I have,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with progress. I don’t like spending our state’s money for nothing.”
Financial benefits still pending
It’s too early to tell how much economic promise the road might actually hold.
Development associated with the road could create millions in taxes for the borough and state, according to a financial analysis AIDEA released last year, though the figures are generally too preliminary to cite.
The report references just one prospective coal mine in the area, at Canyon Creek south of the Skwentna River. That mine was found to create about 200 jobs, according to the preliminary analysis. But any production at the mine is some years off, state mining program officials say, and notoriously fickle coal markets complicate any coal prospects.
The conventional timber prospects of the area are questionable, given the Susitna Valley’s swaths of beetle-killed spruce. AIDEA’s financial analysis shows timber would provide minimal economic benefit and just five jobs. Instead, the report talks about the merits of fire suppression.
The financial analysis found the five mining companies with claims in the area could create 1,400 jobs annually -- but only if all operated in the same year, a scenario even the analysis finds unlikely because most operations would be spread out over the 50-year life of the project.
Nova is exploring what it says are gold prospects totaling more than 9 million ounces so far in the so-called Estelle Gold Project area.
The company is expecting more promising exploration this year, Nova CEO Christopher Gerteisen told Small Caps, an Australian investor news program, last month.
“We’re developing the Carlin of the north,” Gerteisen said, a reference to Nevada’s Carlin gold trend, one of the world’s richest gold mining districts. “We’re not a one-hit wonder.”
Public outreach concerns
Numerous Mat-Su residents and at least two borough assembly members faulted the project for failing to provide adequate public outreach during the process.
AIDEA officials defended their efforts to engage the public, saying they presented plans to the public in half a dozen forums.
The borough is handling outreach efforts now.
Plans include public meetings on Feb. 23 and March 23 as well as a website with sign-up for email notices for project events and updates, according to Brad Sworts, the borough official working on the project. Landowners and businesses in the study area will also get notifications.
Filing a wetlands permit application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers triggers the National Environmental Policy Act review process, which involves significant review as well as public involvement, Mat-Su borough manager Mike Brown said at the late December meeting.
The process involves a review of more than 20 public-interest factors including economics, environmental concerns, wetlands, historic properties, and recreation, Brown said.
“No permit is granted if the proposed project is found to be contrary to the public interest,” he said.
Correction: This story was updated to add a March 23 public meeting to be held by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The original story referenced meetings in February only.