Some 40-plus years ago, my husband Carl and I, our one-year-old baby Carly, a black Labrador named Duncan, and boxes of food and freight flew out together from Anchorage on a late fall afternoon. We splashed silently upon the Yentna River, turned, and idled up to a small piece of land we had just purchased. We had spent months preparing to move here. We quit our jobs, sold everything we owned, and dreamed about our new adventure. Our young family was eager to live a life far away from the city, finding our way together.
We raised two daughters on this piece of land. And we spent decades welcoming guests from around the world to the wilds of the West Susitna Valley. Later, in the 1990s, we moved to what would become Winterlake Lodge, farther west and north, farther away from any easy lifestyle. We cut firewood, shoveled snow in the winter, fended off mosquitoes and bears in the summer, and we were grateful for every moment.
Our lodge, Winterlake, has only six guest cabins and the main lodge, some employee housing, and a dog lot. It’s not big business, and perhaps it is meaningless to a wealthy gold extraction company, but it has sustained my family for all these years. It has employed countless young people who have come to join us for the summer. And importantly, it has housed guests who are often so inspired by the beauty of the landscape here that they never forget their experience. These guests often return to Alaska.
Our mission for our little company — and our family — is to provide our guests with the opportunity to experience the powerful sense of time spent in Alaska’s wild places. Lasting sustainability and conservation are at the heart of our values. We want guests to connect with nature in new, educational and immersive ways that become lifelong memories.
“This is the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen,” a guest might say to us, more often than not. “This is the best day of my life.”
Late one winter evening, as we were finishing the day and falling asleep in the typically quiet darkness, we saw lights flash from across the lake, about a mile away. And then we heard the rumbling of a vehicle as it traveled along the snow paralleling the Iditarod Trail and continued to head west. It was shocking and out-of-place, with no warning. That was the first of many storm clouds that fell over us as we learned about mining interests such as the Nova Gold project, the Estelle Mining Trend, the Tintina Gold District, the Donlin mine — and its gas pipeline — and more.
These companies have helicoptered into our wilderness. They’ve named mountains and valleys around us after themselves as if they are the first people to arrive, conquerors to our shores. They’ve mowed down old living native trees to create an eyesore of a camp and runway known as Whiskey Bravo. They have disregarded our area’s native Dena’ina traditional history or our post-western contact history, which is rich and worth preserving. They wish to extract Alaska’s rich resources and take the earnings away to Canada, Australia and other faraway places where miners have already scarred and depleted the Earth, often polluting beyond repair. Just read the glee in the language of their investor web pages promising riches and returns. It’s an all-too-familiar story for Alaska.
Through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state has already appropriated $8.5 million and plans to spend $350 million to build a more than 100-mile private industrial road along the Iditarod Trail, crossing more than 150 streams, many of them salmon-bearing.
The noise, disruption and pollution of this non-public road and the projects they hope it will lead to would destroy my business, our way of life, and many others, dealing a fatal blow to the sustainable economy of the West Susitna Valley. It would damage our most valuable resources: clean air, water, land and soil. That’s one of the reasons most of the more than 1,000 people who testified before the Matanuska Susitna Borough opposed the project.
In a recently released report from economist Ginny Fay — a well-regarded independent economist and professor of economics with deep experience in Alaska — that these megaprojects funded by the state, mainly by AIDEA, are failures. Not only do they waste our money when they fail to lead to their goal most of the time, but when they do “succeed,” it’s for projects that would have succeeded anyway without the state giving Alaskans’ money to private companies. That means even when they “succeed,” they create few jobs. They give away our public resources for minuscule returns. They shut Alaskans out of our public lands. And if we had invested wisely instead, we would have at least $30.2 billion more in the bank right now. That’s money that could have gone toward other state budget expenses.
Locals across the political spectrum are making it clear that they don’t want the private industrial West Susitna Access Road. I feel for the young man I heard testify who said he wanted to take his children picnicking, talking about pullouts and public bathrooms, but that is not what this is. It’s a private, industrial road that would lead to the destruction of my home, shut Alaskans out of our public lands, and waste hundreds of millions of our dollars doing it.
The storm cloud is still hanging over the West Susitna Valley. But our elected officials have the opportunity to take a hard look at just why we are throwing away massive amounts of state money on destructive and private projects Alaskans don’t want. They can start by pulling funding for the West Su Access Road.
I sincerely want your children and your grandchildren to be able to experience what we do on an everyday level. Wild, clean air. Birds that come back this time of year. The animals we see. The grandeur and beauty of this place.
I think about it every day.
Kirsten Dixon is a chef, author and owner of Within the Wild, which encompasses Winterlake Lodge and Tutka Bay Lodge. She is a year-round resident of the West Susitna Valley.
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