FISHHOOK — As a spring snowstorm blankets the herd, Northern Lights Elk Ranch manager Ben Raevsky eyes a map of a transmission line proposed for the north and east side of the sprawling property at the foot of the Talkeetna Mountains.
Matanuska Electric Association is proposing a 20-mile, 115-kilovolt transmission line with roughly 80-foot-tall towers from the Fishhook area near Hatcher Pass to Meadow Lakes, a booming 100-square-mile area inside one of Alaska’s fastest-growing regions.
It will take at least seven years to complete the project.
The elk ranch sits among other farms and large parcels along Edgerton Parks Road, a two-lane ribbon that provides access to popular ski, biking and hiking trails at Government Peak Recreation Area in the shadow of Hatcher Pass.
The proposed route of the line also cuts into remote territory north of the Little Susitna River, where it would create a newly cleared corridor before dropping to Pittman Road.
Project officials say that along with passing through busy residential areas near Hatcher Pass and along Church Road, the line would run about 10 miles from one crossing of the Little Su to the next — a stretch that’s undeveloped except for a short section along a road called Solitude Street.
Property owners in the path of the line say the proposed route may avoid more homes than other options, but threatens the rural character of large farm lots as well as scenery in an area popular with visitors from all over Southcentral.
Along with the visual intrusion, Raevsky said, he’s worried the line will increase the risk of wildland fire, trespass by ATVers and damage to salmon habitat.
“Nobody planned for an industrial powerline to go through here,” he said.
‘Trying to be proactive’
The ranch and other properties enjoy relative seclusion and quiet. But just a few miles away sit hundreds of dense fourplexes along Wasilla-Fishhook Road and scores of new subdivision homes, part of a dense cluster of growth that extends to Meadow Lakes.
Matanuska Electric, which serves 54,000 members in Mat-Su and Chugiak/Eagle River, has been adding 1,000 to 1,400 new services annually for the past five years, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Castro.
Some of the fastest growth is in the area to be served by the new transmission line, Castro said.
“We don’t want to run into reliability or outage issues in the future,” she said. “We’re just trying to be proactive.”
MEA started planning for the new line, as well as a new substation, in January 2021 and held a public hearing in January as well as two open houses and numerous presentations.
Earlier route proposals were met with concerns over proximity to homes, churches and schools in neighborhoods in the densely populated suburbia between Palmer and Wasilla, Castro said.
So by September, the utility announced the new possible route crossing the Little Su. Another route to the south, following busy Wasilla-Fishhook Road, was rated the second-best option.
Last week, the Little Su route was officially selected in a decisional document filed with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
The new line would connect an existing transmission line to a existing substation and provide a parallel path from the utility’s Eklutna Generation Station into Palmer and Wasilla, according to the document.
The northern route is less intrusive to property owners than the southern one, according to MEA’s analysis: It crosses 154 parcels and comes within 75 feet of 13 residential buildings, as compared to 357 parcels and 55 buildings.
It’s estimated to cost $17 million instead of almost $25 million.
Putting the line along Wasilla-Fishhook would also complicate any future efforts to widen the busy, winding road because state transportation officials would have to move the line at “huge expense,” Castro said. “That would be a lot of disruption, a lot of outages.”
The new decisional document includes more than 400 public comments — most expressing a preference for locating the new line along heavily used roads or routes with existing power lines. There were few comments opposing the southern route along Wasilla-Fishhook.
Raevsky, a former wildland firefighter, said his concerns over fire danger stem from MEA’s plans to use a “hydro ax” to clear vegetation for the line. On other fires, he said, the wood chips left behind can provide fuel for embers.
Raevsky said ATVs taking advantage of new access under the line could add potential fire sources, not to mention hard-to-police traffic running up into Hatcher Pass.
“People shoot the elk now,” he said. “If we have ATVers traveling along this route ... we have the potential of people driving by and shooting the elk all the time.”
The Fishhook Community Council last month approved a resolution asking the borough to reject any route that conflicts with the area’s comprehensive plan guiding future growth.
Seventy-five landowners have signed a petition opposing the northern route.
‘Stay clear of undeveloped areas’
State biologists last fall expressed concerns about any route crossing the Little Su in undeveloped areas, especially if it creates new access points to the upper river or trails cutting across tributaries, according to a review of the project.
Routes like that should be avoided, especially if alternative routes along existing roads are options, wrote Sam Ivey, Palmer-based area sport fish biologist. The northern route includes king salmon spawning grounds.
“The Little Susitna River is major producer of Chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and pink salmon and the river supports approximately 30,000 angling days of sport fishing effort in its lower reaches,” Ivey wrote, adding about 10,000 silvers are caught every year in the river.
New crossings could also increase salmon poaching, already an issue at other river crossings, he wrote.
Wildlife biologist Tim Peltier said the northern route would increase ATV use, potentially leading to wetland damage.
“We should encourage the MEA to stay clear of undeveloped areas,” Peltier wrote. “It is not that a power line in an undeveloped area would alter wildlife movement, but if there was a lot of human activity in these areas as a result of the clearing that may.”
MEA officials say they plan to “mitigate” potential effects on salmon and are discussing ways to limit ATV traffic using various deterrents such as bollards, boulders, fences, gates and signs.
While Matanuska Electric was required to submit the decisional document to the borough, planning officials say they don’t have the authority to approve or reject the project outright.
Borough code requires MEA hold a certain number of public meetings and summarize comments, communicate the chosen course of action, a construction timeline and outline the appeal process.
The utility doesn’t have to prove it addressed every comment, planning officials say.
The utility has a separate — and complicated — appeals process, with a deadline of April 26. Any appeals must be supported by at least five unrelated people based on a specific objection, and people can sign only one appeal.
The appeals will be heard April 28 by a three-member appeals committee appointed by Matanuska Electric’s CEO. A decision will be made by May 28.
Amber McDonough, an engineer who owns property in the path of the line, opposes the northern route and favors the path along Wasilla-Fishhook.
McDonough and another resident in an email this week asked MEA to extend the appeal deadline to give the public a chance to digest the 800-plus-page decisional document.
They also asked the utility to address what McDonough calls “holes and potential bias” in the appeal process. That includes limiting people to just one appeal and encouraging the utility’s publicly elected board to pick five people from the community instead of the CEO.
“Since MEA’s Administration and the CEO made the project decisions outlined by the (decisional document) they cannot, without prejudice, fairly and democratically be the authority with exclusive control over the appeals process,” the email states.
If the utility’s selected route goes forward, the next hurdle will be securing easements with landowners for the line’s path.
That could be tricky given the number of residents who oppose the northern route, including elk ranch owner Paul Cook, Raevsky’s father-in-law.
Cook said he would not support granting an easement for the line at this point.
“When you talk to MEA, they’re for the most part pretty polite and professional, but it seems like they’re just going through the motions and they’re just going to do what they want to do anyway,” he said. ”In Alaska, it’s all about open space and nature and wildlife. When you could go down a road that already has power, why are you cutting through new places?”