Environmental Concerns Renewed Over Mining District Access Road

Image via Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

The State of Alaska’s plan to invest millions of dollars in a 108-mile access road to mining claims, many of which are foreign owned, is raising red flags with environmentalists and others concerned about potential adverse impacts on wild salmon habitat.

The proposed West Susitna Access Road has support from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), which has applied for a Clean Water Act dredge and fill permit for the road. The authority has already appropriated $8.5 million for the road, but millions more in state funds would be needed for the road to be completed.

Field studies are to begin this summer, along with further evaluation of cultural and historical sites, fish and wildlife habitat, engineering refinement and alternative route analysis.

According to the authority, anticipated benefits of the project west of the Susitna River include new opportunities for jobs in extraction of gold, silver, copper and strategic metals, along with improved oil and gas development, agricultural production, harvest of timber resources, harnessing of alternative energy and recreational access.

Yet stakeholders, including environmental advocates and local landowners, see things differently.

“AIDEA is the state’s biggest player when it comes to promoting ill-conceived projects,” said Emily Anderson, Alaska program director of the Wild Salmon Center, an international conservation entity that works to protect wild salmon, steelhead, char, trout and the ecosystems they depend on.

“AIDEA’s ‘Roads to Resources’ investments have ended up being ‘Roads to Nowhere’,” Anderson said. “We need a future we can all live with—one built on a sustainable economy, not on speculative projects that jeopardize our fish and wildlife resources and existing businesses.” 

“When you find yourself in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging, not to buy more shovels,” added Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState, another nonprofit advocate for healthy salmon habitat and fish first policies. “The Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s own recently released data shows the vast majority of local Alaskans oppose the West Susitna Access Road—meaning it’s the perfect place to stop wasting our money and to start spending it wisely,” Bristol said.

Opponents of the road are asking Gov. Mike Dunleavy to stop any further state funding of the project on grounds that it would have a negative impact on fish and wildlife resources in the region.

“Grave concern over the negative impacts of the proposed West Susitna Access Road has united the business community in the West Su,” said Anders Gustafson, executive director of the Alaska Range Alliance, a collaboration of lodge and other private landowners in the West Susitna.

“$350 million would be much better spent on fixing roads we already have than on a dumpster fire local people don’t want—and that threatens to destroy existing businesses,” he said.

“Alaska Megaproject Update,” a new report from independent economist Ginny Fay, contends that the State of Alaska has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on failed large-scale projects like the access road. The report states that from 1970-2021, had state funds devoted to such projects been invested more wisely, Alaska would have an additional $30.2 billion in the bank.