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 Recreation Rivers (Learn more about Recreation 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
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.
The Phase III was signed into agreement following a December 21, 2021 Mat Su Borough Assembly meeting, despite overwhelming public opposition to the project and a general lack of understanding from the Borough Assembly.
Phase III was first brought before the Mat Su Borough Assembly on December 7, 2021 where overwhelming opposition was heard against the project. After much discussion and inadequate answers by AIDEA representatives to very good questions from the Borough Assembly, the vote was shelved for the next Assembly meeting.
On December 21, 2021, the Mat Su Borough Assembly heard public comments about the project and once again were asked to vote. In total, 35 constituents testified in opposition and 9, predominantly industry associated individuals, testified in favor. The Borough voted to approve Phase III of predevelopment event despite opposition. Through this vote, The Borough Assembly authorized AIDEA to continue with the project with no requirements for public outreach or independent cost-benefit analysis, and on the timeline AIDEA has proposed. In addition, they added on a burden to the Borough to conduct public outreach (though they only have $50k) to be done concurrently with AIDEA work.
Prior to this, the previous Borough Mayor (Vern Halter), Assembly, and the Fish and Wildlife Commission expressed great concerns about the West Susitna Access Road.
State money has been allocated for AIDEA use on this project. 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. This $8.5 million was accepted by AIDEA for Phase III of the West Susitna Access road in October of 2021. With this large amount of money acquired, many basic questions remained completely or unsatisfactorily answered. For example, timber is one of the new resources that AIDEA says the road will allow access to. In their October meeting, it was indicated that an estimated 5 jobs would be created by access to this resources.
The Approval of Phase III also mandated that the Mat-Su Borough use $50,000 of previously allocated money for outreach on the project.
Mat-Su Borough Outreach
Borough mandate research began in January of 2022 and wrapped up in April of 2022. The Borough outreach consisted of a website, two public meetings, postcard mailers, emails, an online survey, and summary of findings.
The two public meetings were held on on Zoom. Representatives from DNR, the Borough, and AIDEA attended. AIDEA was unprepared for the questions that they received from the public during these meetings Recordings to the two meetings can be found on YouTube, linked below.
Mat Su Borough Public Outreach Meeting # 1: February 23, 2022
Mat Su Borough Public Outreach Meeting #2: March 23, 2022
Representatives from DNR, the Borough, and AIDEA attended.
AIDEA was unprepared for the questions that they received from the public during these meetings.
Questions that AIDEA could not answer include:
"What milepost on the West- Su Road parallels the Donlin Pipeline and their optic fiber right of way route?
Who would be responsible for it?
Who would own the Road?
Who would maintain it?
Would it be a toll road?
Why is this now a multi-use access road? Is it because the project proponent does not want to look at the road as “Connected Action” under NEPA?
Will the Borough have to create a new road service area for this route?
It looks like Knik Road Service Area will still be impacted—how will that be dealt with, given additional traffic and weight on the Knik RSA roads?
Who determined the cost of the road?
Has there been an independent cost benefit analysis not done by AIDEA?
During the EIS for the Port Mackenzie Railroad Extension Project EIS, it left out a significant lake/pond on the map. That was brought to the attention but never corrected. Will the EIS truthfully add all waterways, etc, in the route of the road?
Is there a tally of the number of comments for and opposing?
On your website, the public does not disclose who would be funding the design/construction of this project.t The public has the right to know.
Last meeting, the claim was made that AIDEA doesn’t want to use the closer existing roads to Beluga and utilize the barge system there and that the road was supposed to tie into the road system at Port Mackenzie in order to utilize the rail bed and port for export. Neither of these projects are completed. Is it in the budget to finish the rail bed by adding tracks and finishing the port to handle that kind of export?
Will the road be open in winter?
Does the cost to Alaskans include the EIS?
How can you even propose this project if you don’t have funding or know if it is public or private?
Would the Port of Mackenzie need to be improved for this to be feasible? If so, who would pay?
Clearly mining is the main driver of this project. The mine has no 43-101 report submitted and no feasibility study has been completed so why are we considering this mining road where no mine currently exists?
Who completed the field studies and who funded them?
How will the final decision be made whether this road is built or not? What is the exact process?
What is the hydrology process? Will this be left unfinished like Port Mackenzie and the railroad spur?
What are the protections for fish and wildlife?
The Rec Rivers plan is currently under evaluation and will likely be amended to allow for future development in and around these rivers?
Are you looking at any foreign investors or funders/organizations/companies for the project?
Please elaborate on possible timber harvest—most spruce are dead and rotting due to beetle kill and where is there a mill that can handle the board-feet estimated by the proposed project?
Did the preliminary economic study by AIDEA include negative impacts to guides, lodges, and other current economic activities?
What are you trying to sell us?
Maybe we should build the bridge form Anchorage to Port Mac that was proposed in 1963 first before these other proposals. Have you discussed this?
It is not a road for cars, it is an access corridor for gold mining trucks to drive out tailings.
Are there deals being talked about/worked out with certain organization/entities for this project?
What funders have you been talking to?
If you can’t answer who will use it, or, who will fund it, it sounds like a money making venture for you and all those involved in this preliminary work—is this true?
If the private road would cost 300-400 million, and the state has set aside 8.5 million, where is the rest of the money coming from to build this road?
How much is NOVA minerals being will to help fund?
What happens with the mines are expended in 20 years?
Does AIDEA consider regenerative long-term sustainable projects rather than just extractive?
Could you address how oil, gas, and mining exploration makes sense at this time in history?
How many seasons of field studies have been completed?
Why isn’t ADFG involved in these discussions?
There will need to have an ADL/right of way agreement, right?
Who maintains the road? Will there be parking areas?
Does it become a Mat-Su Borough managed road?
Will it be an ice road?
Who will be allowed Access?
How would all of the streams crossed be protected?
Wouldn’t transportation cost be a negative factor in the economics of timber sales?
By the time the road goes in, will the beetle kill be worth anything?
Can you please bring ADFG into the conversation?
What’s the current production royalty from mining to the state—especially for a mine that doesn’t exist?
Mining is a one time royalty—fish give royalty every year. What is the net income that could let them deduct a lot of expenses before the royalty is applied?
What are AIDEA’s plans for the summer?
How many of the 156 streams have been surveyed for fish?
Has the third party EIS RFP been released?
What is the projected revenue for the various projects that this road might give access to? How long to recover that revenue?
Who did the field studies?
Is this only gold and coal?
The 2014 engineering cost estimates for the same route was $453 million which is approximately $557million in 2020 dollars. The 2020 cost estimate came in at $357 million. Can you help us understand why the cost was reduced by $200 million?
Is this project being partially financed by federal money and if so does it come under the NEPA requirements?
Are we actually still talking about extracting coal in 2022? If the state is considering a $300+ million investment into a road, to the nearest $10 million, what is the incremental revenue to the state and borough from this investment to our state and Borough revenue stream?
Will there be a comparative economic study as part of this project?
How does this benefit the public?
How much of the road is in a flood plain?
Are you also calculating in environmental clean up? Will this be the responsibility of Alaskans or the mining company?"
Wrap-Up of Borough Outreach
The Mat-Su Borough wrapped up their public outreach for the West Susitna Industrial Access Corridor Project in April, and marked the end of this phase of the project by releasing a summary report.
The summary report from the Borough was released on April 18th, and marks the completion of the Borough spear-headed public outreach project. Most striking about this report is the lack of actual numbers demonstrating the overwhelming lack of public support for the project.
In all categories identified, the vast majority of folks that showed up to testify indicated a complete lack of support for the project, whether public or private.
Individuals commented on a variety of concerns in oppositon to the project citing concerns from environmental damage and wilderness loss, to negative effects of access like crime sprawl and financial problems, a lack of analysis of actual costs vs. benefits, problems with the public process, and questionable feasibility.
Manager Brown presented the outreach information at the Borough Assembly meeting in April.
You can watch it on YouTube HERE - The West Su discussion starts at 33:15 and lasts around 15 min.
Manager Brown said the key takeaways were that about 60% opposed, much less than the December meetings because their "nets were cast wider" and that the main concerns were mining vs. access. It is important to highlight that looking at their report (page 4), Public Meeting #2 (the final one) that it looks like well over 80% of the public still opposed the road, and the combined undecided and opposed response from meeting #1 is also close to that same 75-80%.
There was no opportunity for the public to ask questions or engage after this presentation.
404 Wetland Permitting
On Tuesday, May 24, AIDEA announced in a press release that they have submitted their information for a 404 permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE.) This begins the environmental review of the project.
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.
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.