Mat-Su

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

PALMER — A 100-mile road proposed for the rugged Mat-Su backcountry west of the Susitna River is moving into the federal permitting stage but remains a long way from approval and construction.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority this week announced it filed a federal wetlands permit application for the West Susitna Access project.

Currently estimated at more than $350 million, the road as proposed would run from Point MacKenzie to the Yentna Mining District in the Alaska Range, where numerous mining companies including Nova Minerals are eying potentially lucrative deposits.

The application, filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “kick-starts” the federal review phase of the project, according to AIDEA project manager Jesse Peterson.

First proposed nearly a decade ago, the project over the years has struggled with funding and scrutiny of megaprojects that include the Knik Arm Crossing and an unfinished rail extension to Port MacKenzie.

This week, supporters including Gov. Mike Dunleavy cheered the federal application as a step toward eventual approval of a road that would provide access for resource development as well as “managed public access” to hunting, fishing, boating and other recreational opportunities.

Critics including local property owners and wilderness lodge operators, however, say the project would subsidize a private industrial corridor for mining companies and threaten the area’s fragile environment and wilderness character at great expense.

It’s still not clear how much of the road will be open to the public, potentially opening new recreation areas in the fish- and wildlife-rich country west of the Susitna River.

A majority of roughly 1,000 comments filed with a Matanuska-Susitna Borough survey in mid-April opposed the road, though a number of people said a promise of public access could change that. Tribal entities said they either didn’t support it or didn’t have enough information to decide.

Peterson this week said the amount of public access remains unresolved but there are calls to make the road open to a public airstrip at its end. He said AIDEA is researching how to balance public traffic with large mining equipment carrying loads that don’t meet traditional road standards.

A subcontractor is reaching out to officials in British Columbia, where roads carry both kinds of traffic, to get more information, he said. Some possible compromises could include allowing public vehicles on summer weekends only or leaving the road unplowed in winter.

The potential to disrupt the remote wilderness across the Susitna is triggering concern among lodge owners.

Rainy Pass Lodge owner Steve Perrins, who met with Dunleavy earlier this year and hosted the governor last year, has told the Daily News the road would “absolutely kill our business.”

Now the governor’s office is paying McKinley Research Group LLC $42,000 to conduct a new economic analysis of the existing tourism and fishing businesses in the area for comparison with the prospective value of development in the Yentna Mining District.

The governor’s office requested the economic study after a discussion with “stakeholders and some lodge owners” who asked for the analysis, spokeswoman Shannon Mason said.

The contract, signed in April, calls for interviews with community and private industry leaders, trade and recreational organizations, Alaska Native corporations and others.

A final report, due out this fall, is expected to include a “summary of stakeholder outreach, analysis of recreational opportunities and impacts, assessment of economic value and benefits, and other proposed values or uses of the area,” according to the contract.

The federal review is on a longer timeline, and will involve additional public comment opportunities.

The review is expected to take 12 to 18 months, Peterson said. If approved, he said, it could be another 12 to 18 months before any work started.

The wetlands permit application AIDEA submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers triggers the National Environmental Policy Act process. That means the project will be reviewed under numerous federal regulations including the Clean Water Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

It’s possible the federal review could result in a different path for the road under federal provisions for the route that’s the “least environmentally damaging” to wetlands, Peterson said.

He couldn’t provide an updated cost estimate for the road. At this point, the only funding allocated to the project is a $8.5 million legislative appropriation for the permitting phase.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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