The West Susitna Industrial Access Road
The West Susitna Access Road is a proposed 100-mile mining access road through the currently roadless area west of the Susitna River (1).
In total, the proposed West Su Mining Access Road will consist of:
156 stream crossings
145 of which will get culverts.
90 of which will be designed for fish passage.
11 bridges with 4 complex bridges (2).
AIDEA estimates this project to cost $350 million (2). This does not include pre-project funding from AIDEA’s uncommitted state budget that has already been spent on the Phase I and Phase II MOUs as well as the upcoming Phase III MOU.
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While three routes were considered during the Phase II MOU (3), The Port Mackenzie route through Rainy Pass was determined the most viable. This route would run from Port Mackenzie to the Estelle Mining District near Rainy Pass in the Eastern Alaska Range (2).
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.
AIDEA is a state agency that was created in the late 1960s that aims to “encourage economic growth and diversification(1).” It is comprised of a non-elected board that maintains the capacity to allocate large amounts of state money to development and drive large-scale projects with minimal public oversight, input, or accountability.
AIDEA has a poor track record with investing in dead-end projects like the Mustang Project, the Alaska Seafood International- Seafood Processing Facility, and Healy Clean Coal (4).
In presentation to public meeting, AIDEA frequently does not mention their partners with NOVA Minerals. Most recently, during the Phase II MOU presentation to the Mat Su Borough, Nova and their Alaskan Subsidiaries were not publicly mentioned as investors in the project (2).
NOVA Minerals and its Alaskan subsidiaries are an Australian gold mining company with claims in the Estelle Mining District.
The Road is likely necessary to make their exploration and gold mining efforts a viable enterprise.
NOVA Minerals mentions AIDEA multiple times as a partner on their website in regards to their Estelle Mining district exploration.
(Screenshots from the Nova Minerals website taken on Friday, April 9, 2021 at 2:45 PM)
Mat Su Borough:
The Mat Su Borough has entered into the Phase I and II MOU with AIDEA and NOVA minerals and will vote on entering the Phase III MOU in early summer of 2021 (5) .
The road is being developed to open a large mining district in remote Alaska. AIDEA reports that the mine will benefit mining claims in the Estelle mining district, open up timber and agricultural lands, and provide increased recreation (2). Despite these claims, there are no indications of how the road will be paid for, how it will be maintained, if the road will be public, and how agricultural and timber sales will be handled (2).
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.
Total money spent: $200,000
MSB put in $50,000
AIDEA put in $50,000
Nova put in $100,000
The Phase I MOU was signed to agreement in 2019. The resulting study was led by HDR Alaska, an engineering consulting firm. The initial goals for this study were to research the feasibility of two proposed routes of the road.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.
This reconnaissance study was completed in early 2020.
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.
Total Money Spent: $410,000
MSB put in 0
AIDEA put in $155,000 (plus up to 7,500 in contingency funding)
AKO put in $155,000 (plus up to 7,500 in contingency funding)
Both AIDEA and AKO would look for $100,000 in additional funding from 3rd parties
Thanks to the advocacy efforts of the Susitna River Coalition, 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. 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. Phase II explored two different routes for the road It was concluded that the route for the proposed road would begin near Port MacKenzie. It would cross the Susitna River and travel through the Yentna watershed and end at Nova Minerals Estelle Gold Claim near Rainy Pass.
Despite the one of the intended goals of the Phase II MOU according to AIDE being public outreach, an extremely inadequate job was performed. Opportunities for public comment and outreach were limitied and poorly executed. Mailers were sent out, many not even making it to the proper people. Addition an open house was held in December 2020. Supporters of the road were predominantly industry associated while the majority of people that live, recreate, and own land in the area showed strong opposition.
In early 2021, the results of the Phase II MOU were presented the Mat SU borough assembly to fierce opposition to the Mayor, Vern Halter.
PHASE III MOU
The phase III MOU will be voted on by the Mat Su Borough during the summer of 2021. In addition, After being removed from the Governor's Bond package because it wasn't constitutional, Governor Dunleavy added $8.5 million for the West Su Road Project to the Budget during the 2021 legislative session. The West Su Road has yet to be approved by the Borough and has drawn skepticism and scrutiny from the Borough Major, Assembly, and the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
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” 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.
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.
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.
 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.