Alaska road project pits conservative lodge owners against conservative state administration

A map, mostly of the Susitna Valley
The proposed West Susitna Access Road (Susitna River Coalition)

The state’s proposed West Susitna Access Road would cut through 100 miles of wilderness to reach an area with mining potential in the Alaska Range foothills.

But, according to the Anchorage Daily News, a coalition that includes lodge owners and other business people is spending $200,000 on a campaign to defeat the project.

ADN reporter Nat Herz recently wrote about the road proposal and the group that wants to kill it.

Listen:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Nat Herz: It’s kind of part of this old school idea called “roads to resources,” where if we build some more roads in Alaska, it’ll allow us to access things like more timber for logging, more ore for mining, more coal for burning and exporting. And, you know, these are the kinds of projects that have been desired for many, many years by our statewide elected officials. This one is unique in that it would head from the Mat-Su, kind of western Mat-Su near Big Lake, northwest across the Big Susitna River, kind of into the foothills of the Alaska Range. There’s a large mining prospect that there’s a foreign mining company that’s looking to further develop and see if there’s commercially viable quantities of minerals there. And this is one way to potentially bring down the costs of them getting out there and testing it out and potentially building a mine.

Casey Grove: So the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, with the support of the governor, is who is pushing this. Explain that a little bit more, and where are they at with that?

NH: Yeah, so the project officially is under this state-owned economic development agency, AIDEA. They were sort of tasked with doing the permitting and some of the research around this project. But, ultimately, the money was put into the state budget — $8.5 million dollars — to develop this project. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has also supported this project, pushed it, tried to kind of align political support for it. And the Matanuska-Susitna Borough has also expressed openness to at least going through the permitting and development process to determine whether the value of the road would exceed the, you know, potential damage or cost to the tourism and other existing operations out there that might not be excited about the idea of development.

CG: This opposition group had popped up, but I guess at least one of the lodges that would be in this area, they are in support of the road as well, right?

NH: This is definitely a good case study of, these projects are never sort of black and white, where everyone is opposed and everyone supports them. There is one lodge in the area, the Skwentna Roadhouse, that I think would basically get road access. I mean, we’re talking about a road that would go 100 miles, across the Susitna River, into an area that really doesn’t have any access other than boats and planes right now. And this would sort of open up a huge swath of very rugged, very undeveloped land and water in Alaska. And so, you know, some people obviously see economic opportunity, in that if you’re an existing business out there, you have land, you have infrastructure, it could be appealing to get more tourists and customers out there.

The flip side is, you know, there are a lot of folks whose business models out there really depend on the isolation, the fact that there aren’t a lot of people and the fact that this is a really remote area with a lot of scenic qualities and mountains and streams and salmon and wildlife. One of the biggest opponents of this project is the owners of the Rainy Pass Lodge, which is a checkpoint on the Iditarod and also sort of a rustic luxury destination for very wealthy people who like to get out into the Alaska wilderness and shoot stuff and catch stuff and see stuff. So these lodges do pretty good business, they also have some clients that don’t necessarily want to see this area disturbed, and they raised $200,000 to put toward, full-on ad campaign to try to take down this road project before it even starts.

CG: And as part of that campaign, the owner of the Rainy Pass Lodge, Steve Perrins, has appeared in ads opposing this road. How does Perrins, though, square his opposition to a road project that the governor supports, when he’s pretty much otherwise aligned with Governor Dunleavy?

NH: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. So Steve Perrins, the co-owner of the Rainy Pass Lodge, he’s a true conservative guy. In 2014, he cut a very iconic, high-production-value ad where he really tried to take down Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who lost that election against Republican Dan Sullivan. And a lot of these guys (opposing the road) are conservative folks. The governor’s office, you know, you talk to them about it, they really say this is a little bit of nimby-ism, and that, you know, these are folks that make their money from access to state-owned land, and that there should also be the opportunity for others to access and develop state-owned land.

I think what the businessmen and lodge owners will tell you is that there is a really important economy that exists that is around these lodges and tourist destinations, and that there’s going to be a significant cost to that if you put in a road and diminish those values and “big foot” them with big natural resource development projects. And their argument is like, “Look, we are conservationists, the products that we are selling are renewable and don’t count on us extracting anything and sending it elsewhere, and if you build a road and you build a mine, it’s kind of a one-shot deal. You know, you mine out all the minerals in 10 years or 20 years, and then it’s gone. And we’ll still be here.”

CG: Well, your story also noted that AIDEA kind of disputes some of the things that this group has said. What is that? What did they say?

NH: So the state has actually embarked on a process of trying to study the costs and benefits of this potential road and what the upside is, as far as jobs and tax revenue from mining, which, you know, I will say tax revenue from mining is not especially large. And then what would the costs be as far as impacts on existing businesses in the area. And the governor has hired a consultant to do that work. And so, you know, I think AIDEA and the governor’s office are both saying, “Look, we’re not building this road yet. We’re going through a process of permitting and environmental reviews and study that will help us understand, do the economics of this project makes sense?” I think the folks at AIDEA are just fine having more publicity on this project and more people being aware of it. But I think they aren’t necessarily pleased with the idea that this road should be torpedoed before it can be kind of fully studied and vetted.

CG: One real quick thing, Nat, in your story. You noted the similarities between how this fight over this road is shaping up, in that you have lodge owners, and some of them conservative folks, joining this fight. And then comparing that to opposition to the Pebble Mine, which part of the opposition was similar there. Tell me a little bit more about that.

NH: Yeah, I mean, look — the most obvious point is that a number of the folks involved in this, namely the political professional that’s running this campaign and the attorney that’s also doing their legal business, they both literally are veterans of this Pebble Mine fight in southwest Alaska that pits this huge mining project against a world-class commercial and recreational and subsistence salmon fishery. The big thing with the Pebble Mine is that, you know, it not only has Alaska Native subsistence users who are really anxious about this mine against the developers in the state, it also has this group of very wealthy sportsmen and lodge owners and environmental groups that have formed this coalition that’s been really successful. And not to diminish the voices of folks who are doing their personal level subsistence or recreational harvesting or use of a particular area or fish or wildlife, but when we’re talking about these fights that are playing out in the political arena, you really start to see the dynamics of those fights change when, on one side, you start to really form a coalition that includes folks that have a lot of money and political power, which I think you’re seeing in the case of these lodge owners and businessmen who have money in their pockets that they can use to elevate and broadcast their message to a statewide audience.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.