The West Susitna Industrial Access Road
Why is this project important to the Susitna River Coalition Community?
Susitna River Coalition is a group of Alaskans who steward the Susitna River Watershed, formed to oppose the construction of the Susitna-Watana Dam. The road and associated resource extraction would have tremendous impact on the Susitna and other watersheds, and in addition, could lead to increased industry pressure for the Susitna-Watana dam, as there is not enough natural gas available to power all of the resource-extraction projects proposed in the area. We are concerned about the long range implications of the West Susitna Mining Road for many reasons. Its impacts to the robust salmon-bearing waters, it’s impacts to other fish and wildlife habitat, the large-scale mines it would facilitate, and it’s potential to increase industry pressure for a dam.
Rather than rampant resource extraction, Susitna River Coalition, with over 24,000 grassroots members, advocates for a different vision for stewarding the lands and waters that sustain us. We work to collectively care for the thriving habitats that sustain our lives and economies. [Read more: Susitna Watershed Economies]
We question the benefit of constructing a mining road through a vast swath of the Mat-Su Borough and have numerous concerns as to the public process, impacts of the road, as well as impact of the resource extraction projects.
It is imperative than if this project moves forward that it is done with the highest standards for the preservation of ecosystems and cultural heritage sites, and with the ongoing and transparent consultation with stakeholders. (One meeting held in the summer during a pandemic, as was proposed by AIDEA, is not adequate, neither is an online meeting in a region with limited internet.)
Susitna River Coalition remains a watchdog on this project, advocating for the healthy and wild Susitna Watershed ecosystems and economies as well as transparent public process that regarding large scale resource-extraction projects within the watershed.
From Public to Private
While the West Susitna Industrial Access Road was promoted widely in a video circulated by the Mat-Su Borough citing the benefits of access to public land, timber and other resources, it quickly became clear that mining was the true driver of the project and the Estelle gold claim, owned by Nova Minerals, was the destination.
Most recently, it was determined that the West Susitna Access road would be a private gravel industrial road. This private gravel road would cost an estimated $350 million dollars to build. Public access still has yet to be determined. What we do know is that public access and the resulting maintenance and costs would come at considerable expense of the Mat Su Borough and the road would cost far more than the estimated $350 million.
Phase I (Phase 1 Study) of the Understanding (passed in October of 2019) discussed a public road, while Phase 2 was initially proposed as a private, industrial mining road. At the June 16th Assembly Meeting, language of the Phase II understanding was changed to investigate the costs for a public versus private road. At the end of Phase II, the issues of public or private access will be revisited. The difference between a public and private road is a major consideration that warrants careful planning and public outreach. A private road funded with public money may not sit well with Alaskans, while a public road opens questions regarding ensuring responsible use, management and public safety. Remote public roads in other parts of the Mat-Su have led to issues such as dumping of waste, vehicles, poaching, unsafe shooting, permanent camps and more.
Impacts of the Road
The road would be 107.9 miles and involve twenty-four bridges. Twenty of the bridges would be conventional (less than 300 feet) and four would be long-span (greater than 300 feet). A 1,200 foot bridge would be needed to cross the Hayes River, and 1,640 foot would be needed for the Susitna River. The road would require 440 culverts. Each of these bridges and culverts through wetlands and streams would impact the fish and wildlife they sustain upstream and downstream.
The road will have impacts on the area’s important salmon and migratory bird habitats. The region is made up of wetlands and includes the western portion of the Susitna Flats Game Refuge, the top waterfowl hunting area. The waterways support abundant salmon populations. The Talachulitna River, which the road would cross, is one of the premier fishing locations in Alaska. The Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission raised significant concerns with the road in a letter addressed to the Assembly.
A “Road to Resources” west of the Susitna River would benefit resource extraction corporations. The Phase 2 MOU states that the proposed road is ‘non-exclusive,’ meaning that it could be used for other mining and extraction purposes. The road would traverse close to the proposed Chulitna coal project, and would parallel much of the proposed Donlin gas line. The West Susitna Mining Road lays the ground for many projects of significant concern to Alaskans.
[See this interactive map for approximate locations of each proposed project, local communities and more.]
There has been no formal economic analysis done to determine the costs, benefits and impacts of the proposed road and associated large scale mining, or how it compares to the current economic activity that relies on wild habitat. It is not known if a mining road, with or without public access, would benefit residents of the Mat-Su or Alaska.
The primary goal of the project is not to provide public access for Alaskans. That is simply the messaging that will garner the most support for another boondoggle mega-project. From the beginning, this idea has been pushed forward to support an unproven gold claim being explored by an Australian junior mining corporation. This project would undoubtedly move beyond the proposed footprint and promote the industrialization of the region. Already there are proposed coal mines, fracking sites, and timber sales.
In the coming months, there will be opportunities to get involved and ask questions as we collectively think about the future that we want to see for our Susitna drainage. Do we want to support this region turned into an industrial zone with irreparable impacts to our current sustainable economies or do we want to support the Alaska that keeps us here-- one that allows for hunting, fishing, and the experiences a wild West Susitna offers.
 The West Susitna Mining road is among those in the Parnell Administration’s ‘Roads to Resources’ plan which includes the Ambler Mining Road. There are many similarities between the two projects, and they involve many of the same players.
 The Donlin mine which, if built, involves a gas line through much of the Susitna Watershed and one of the world’s largest open pit mines in the Kuskokwim Watershed, and is being driven by Nova Gold, a sister company of Nova Minerals. There has been growing local and non-local resistance to the project.
West Su Open House Comments - December 7, 2020.