West%20Susinta%20and%20Recreational%20Ri

The West Susitna Industrial Access Road

In June of 2020, Australia-based Nova Minerals, AIDEA (Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state owned corporation) and the Mat-Su Borough signed Phase 2 of a Memorandum of Understanding towards a mining road west of the Susitna River. The proposed road would begin near Port MacKenzie or Big Lake. It would cross the Susitna River and travel through the Yentna watershed and end at Nova Minerals Estelle Gold Claim near Rainy Pass. 

During Phase I of the Understanding, the Borough and AIDEA paid $50 thousand for feasibility studies, with an additional $100 thousand from Nova Minerals and completed preliminary scoping. Phase II of the Understanding which was passed with amendments, began summer 2020. As stated by the Mat-Su Borough Assembly, Phase II is still a preliminary phase of the proposed project. 

Many Alaskans, including nearby residents who would be impacted, Indigenous peoples whose traditional land the road would go through, local lodge and business owners, and people concerned with the health of the watershed, advocated for a more clear and open public process, as well as changes to the understanding that would protect the ecosystems that we rely on. 

Thanks to this advocacy, critical amendments were made to Phase II, including adding provisions for the best practices for the management of fish, wildlife and bird habitat and cultural and historical sites. 

The industrial mining road would traverse a vast swath of the Susitna River Watershed, an area of rich biological diversity, with abundant and sensitive fish and wildlife habitat. Several rivers and creeks are designated Recreational Rivers (Learn more about Recreational Rivers HERE).  The land is the traditional territory of the Ahtna and Dena’ina peoples and remains in use today. The land west of the Susitna River is also the location of many cultural heritage sites of high interest. Furthermore, the proposed mining road travels near sections of the historic Iditarod Trail. This region is significant to many, and any resource extraction project that impacts it warrants both careful public engagement and consideration of environmental harm. 

 

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.

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[1]” 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[2]. The West Susitna Mining Road lays the ground for many projects of significant concern to Alaskans. 

 

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[1]” 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[2]. 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.

 

Lack of Opportunities for Public Input

During Phase I and up to the public hearing at the passing of Phase II, there was a near-total lack of opportunity for public input on a road that would impact salmon-bearing streams, cultural heritage sites, remote homesteads, lodges and regional tourism. Stakeholders who advocated for the scheduling of a public hearing and who made their voices heard at it are testament to the level of community concern and need for ongoing consultation.

Stewarding the Susitna Watershed

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. 

[1] 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.

 

[2] 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.

 

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©2020 by Susitna River Coalition.