Alamy

Keeping the West Su Wild

Keeping the West Su Wild

Alaskans are tired of public money flowing to bad private projects. The salmon-threatening West Susitna Industrial Access Road is no exception.

In its five-decade history of shoveling public funds into failed “growth” projects, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) has pursued its share of boondoggles in salmon watersheds.

There was the $10 billion plan to build a hydroelectric dam on the Susitna River, despite a surplus of energy in the system.  The $300+ million Healy Coal Project, idle since its completion in 1999. The $17 billion railroad to nowhere. (Click here for a full report on AIDEA’s megaproject performance from our partners at SalmonState.)

“AIDEA has already wasted billions of state funds  just getting the paperwork filed for bad projects,” says Emily Anderson, Wild Salmon Center’s Anchorage-based Alaska Program Director. “So when we learned that they wanted $350 million to build a road to benefit a few foreign mining companies, that just raised huge red flags.”

In the next two years, AIDEA plans to spend $8 million of those public funds seeking permits for that project. The West Susitna Industrial Access Road project aims to connect the region’s existing road system with an undeveloped mining district 100 miles northwest of the greater Anchorage area, where a handful of Australian and Canadian companies hold claims. 

A map created by WSC GIS Spatial Analyst Jon Hart to show the impacts to Alaska’s West Susitna watershed from a 100-mile industrial access road—a publicly-funded project for private mining companies that would put at least 80 salmon-bearing streams at risk. More about this campaign at westsuwild.org

The road, which would be the first in a vast and pristine area the size of West Virginia, would cross more than 180 streams—at least 80 of which are known to be salmon-bearing—along with a state game refuge, backcountry hunting areas, pristine fly-fishing streams, and the Iditarod Trail.

“An industrial road jeopardizes so much of what Alaskans treasure about the West Su,” Anderson says. “It just doesn’t make sense; why risk Alaskans’ hunting, fishing, and recreational opportunities—along with this region’s established tourism economy—so a couple mining companies can have a free road at their expense?”

“Why risk Alaskans’ hunting, fishing, and recreational opportunities—along with this region’s established tourism economy—so a couple mining companies can have a free road at their expense?”

Emily Anderson, Wild Salmon Center Alaska Program Director

And as an industrial road, Anderson notes, this project comes with additional risks beyond the costs, which so far are estimated to surpass $2 million per mile.

“The standards for building these roads are much lower than for public highways,” she says. “That means to cut costs, developers often opt for the cheapest way to address stream crossings and fish passage—often harming salmon runs and cutting off habitat.”

That’s bad news for a system like the Susitna, which supports Alaska’s fourth-largest Chinook run, as well as coho, sockeye, chum, and pink salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, and Arctic grayling.

Alaska rainbow trout. (PC: Coley Gentzel)

Soon, Anderson says, Alaskans, businesses, Tribes, and the general public will finally have a chance to weigh in on this project. 

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will determine whether AIDEA’s initial Clean Water Act permit application is complete, triggering the environmental review process and upcoming opportunities for the public to voice concerns.

“Word about this project is getting out among the small businesses, lodges, anglers, hunters, and Tribes who care about the area—and they’re rallying to stop it,” Anderson says. “Everyone agrees that the West Su region is too important to be sacrificed for speculative mining ventures.” 

Learn more here about the campaign to Defend the West Susitna, and how you can help take action.

Susitna River crossing. (PC: Tom Plowden, Alamy)
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