Opinions

OPINION: West Susitna Access Road is a waste of money and a dead end

february, ayrshire avenue, west susitna access road, development, mat-su, wasilla

This Memorial Day weekend, I put my boat in on the Susitna River. As I was fishing, I thought about what will happen if our governor and the state-funded Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority have their way. In a few years, the fishing, wildlife and this region will suffer even more than it has recently, all for a bad idea and a handout to a foreign company that doesn’t need it. The natural gas fields and power plants in Beluga have been operating for decades using the barge system; Red Dog Mine does the same. Yet this mine requires a road?

I make a living as a contractor working for land developers. I can tell you every one of the reasons AIDEA gives for this 108-mile road don’t make sense. The Mat-Su region stretches all the way to Cantwell, yet there’s hardly any development past Trapper Creek on the state and borough land along the highway. If that area, which already has a major highway, hasn’t been developed, why are they claiming that this 108 miles of gravel road will create development? The same could be asked about the borough and state land to the east toward Eureka on the highway. These areas can be developed without the cost and damage of this road.

The route they chose is not the most feasible. To cross the Susitna at the lower end, even crossing part of a state wildlife refuge, with seasonal and weight restrictions for travel, is a bad idea. It crosses a known Native burial ground with complete disregard and disrespect. There are routes that avoid a majority of that watershed that would be shorter and less costly.

They say the road will provide access. But there’s already access to the area via boat, snowmachine and ATVs or aircraft. The state’s outdated budget is for a private road, without pullouts, restroom facilities or parking areas. When I asked about access repeatedly at public meetings, they refused to give me a direct answer, likely because they want to dangle this idea it’ll be public to try to get support. Currently, the only public access will be from the existing road system for just more than a dozen miles to the east side of the Susitna, which in turn would add more traffic to the already strained Knik-Goose Bay/Wasilla system.

We can’t maintain the roads we’ve got, and they want to add 108 miles of gravel. A quick search says it can cost between $5,000 and $8,000 per mile per year to maintain a gravel road, yet the state can’t afford a full dividend check for its citizens.

Their budget is $350 million to $400 million for a private mining road. That budget hasn’t increased in years. But inflation is higher than 8% right now. A quick sketch shows this project cannot be done at their estimate. There are better uses for Alaskans’ money.

Another thing that doesn’t sit right with me is that this project is a handout for a foreign company from Australia with marginal geological reports on the area they’re planning to mine, hence them trying to get someone else to foot the bill for access so they have any chance at profitability. I watched a short video from that company, Nova Minerals, that came out recently. They say right in the video: “The project is easily accessible via winter road and by air for ongoing operations and future mine construction.” So why does the state need to spend hundreds of millions of our dollars for a private road to benefit a foreign company?

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The head of AIDEA said in his recent opinion piece that “it is important for Alaskans to understand that we all have a constitutional obligation to manage the resources we hold in common for their highest and best use.” That’s insulting to the majority of people who testified at multiple public meetings, assuming he has to educate us about our state, and it ignores the resources this project puts at risk — including wild salmon, which are constitutionally protected. The salmon resource already isn’t what it was when I was a kid. They say right in the plan that only 90 of the 145 culverts they plan would even be salmon-friendly. A 108-mile road through this area would result in substantial roadkill moose deaths, negatively affecting an already struggling moose population in the area.

I was born and raised in Alaska; I live in Alaska to experience wild places like the West Su. I’ve been hunting and fishing here all my life and want my kids to have this same opportunity. I don’t want to see the land torn up for this road. I want a better use of hundreds of millions of dollars of our money. I’m not alone. Most of the locals I’ve talked to along this river and up and down the tributaries feel the same. The only people who support the project are ones who haven’t really looked into the state’s weak selling points on it, or those willing to sacrifice the last frontier for financial gain.

I am pro-development, but the West Su Access Road is destructive, badly budgeted and unwanted.

Lee McKnight is a business owner and Wasilla resident.

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