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Another Way West
Adding a recreational route to the West Susitna Access Project
By Terri Marshall

he West Susitna Access Project (WSAP) is changing course. Instead of just providing access to mineral resources, the goal is enlarging to also include access to recreational opportunities.

The region west of the Susitna River harbors millions of acres of state lands with a wealth of natural resources. Access was identified as a priority in the State of Alaska’s 2014 Road to Resources report. In 2019, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough agreed to provide a framework for a phased feasibility analysis.

Governor Mike Dunleavy initially included WSAP funding in a proposed bond package, but instead he requested the $8.5 million from the legislature as part of the 2021 budget. “This important project makes it possible to travel by road from the Point MacKenzie/Big Lake area to the millions of acres on the west side of the Susitna River, opening access to strategic minerals and known proven oil and gas reserves,” Dunleavy said. “That’s the role of government—building transportation infrastructure that leads to economic development while ensuring that those resources are developed responsibly.”

AIDEA has partnered with Australian firm Nova Minerals (not to be confused with Novagold, the Canadian company developing the Donlin gold prospect near the Kuskokwim River) to develop the Estelle gold project, a mining district with a collection of 346 claims that the WSAP would connect to the highway system.

The intended route is approximately 100 miles long from the West Ayrshire Avenue snowmachine trailhead to the confluence of Portage Creek and the Skwentna River, near Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range. Currently the only road access west of the Little Susitna River is a winter-only trail to the Fish Creek Natural Resource Management Unit. The WSAP would be a year-round road with at least eleven major bridges, in some sections paralleling the historic Iditarod Trail.

In July, the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) announced its intent to develop a public road and associated facilities in the Susitna Valley to meet the region’s growing demand for improved access to public land, personal properties, waterways, and recreational areas west of the Little Susitna and Susitna Rivers.

“The shift to a recreation road really came from the feedback from the public—people want a public road to pursue recreation activities to the west of the Parks Highway,” says Shannon McCarthy, communications director for DOT&PF. “This is a new project and a separate effort from the AIDEA mineral development, which they will continue to pursue.”

Economic Analysis for the WSAP
According to DOT&PF’s draft 2024-2027 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, the estimated cost of the full WSAP project is $82.5 million, with plans to begin construction in 2025. DOT&PF is currently taking steps to expedite the development of the 15-mile public road while AIDEA focuses on the planning and development of an access corridor to reach agricultural, energy, mining, and other economic interests farther west.

Upon request, AIDEA provided DOT&PF with the design and planning documents that were developed for the WSAP to aid in the DOT&PF’s planning and permitting efforts for a public road, which would include access to a new boat launch at the lower Susitna River and a public campground at the road’s terminus on the west side of the river.

The 2023 Economic Analysis Results for the WSAP listed potential benefits for growth and new job opportunities. These include 65,000 acres of agricultural land to improve Alaska’s food security; access to the region for wildfire control and search and rescue teams; potential oil, gas, and carbon assets; timber for sale or to eradicate beetle-killed forest to reduce wildfire risk; thousands of career-track jobs in the construction, energy, mining, and transportation sectors; access to tracts offered in state land sales; gold, silver, copper, and other strategic metals; 6 million acres for backcountry recreation; and options for bringing broadband telecommunications to the region.

Support from Friends
Friends of West Susitna, a nonprofit grassroots organization, advocates for the State of Alaska to provide year-round road access to state-owned lands and resources west of the Susitna River.

“Alaska’s roads are limited in many regions throughout the state, and some roads are still being used well beyond their capacity,” says Cindi Herman, owner of Skwentna Roadhouse and chair of the Friends of West Susitna. “We need to build new roads to provide access to more areas of the state for all residents.”

Skwentna Roadhouse is likely the only property in the remote area that would have a close connection to the roadway. By itself, the business contracted a lobbyist to push for the project, and now Herman has a formal alliance with other board members to participate in the public process led by AIDEA.

In addition to Herman, board members include Rod Arno, former executive director for the Alaska Outdoor Council; Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, Wasilla City Council member and former state legislator; Calvin Flanigan, an assistant hunting guide, bear guard, and trapper; John Lamborn, a Mat-Su business owner and former exploration geologist; Christy Moore, a former dog musher, organizer of Iditaski and Iditasport events, and property owner at Derf Lake, near Mount Susitna; and Mark Tope, a Mat-Su business owner, trucker, and pilot.

Among the organization’s missions are the development of recreational resources that will enhance enjoyment of the land for all Alaskans and their families.

“As a long-time Alaska resident, I am a big proponent of protecting our land. I would love to see a portion of the toll money collected for commercial use of the road upon completion be used to invest in the land,” says Herman. “We need to build parks, hiking trails, trails for ATVs, snowmachining, dog-mushing, and more. We also need to protect the land for our wildlife.”

“The shift to a recreation road really came from the feedback from the public—people want a public road to pursue recreation activities to the west of the Parks Highway… This is a new project and a separate effort from the AIDEA mineral development, which they will continue to pursue.”
Shannon McCarthy, Communications Director, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
Herman is also passionate about supporting Alaska’s fishing and hunting traditions. “We need to start thinking along the lines of building fish hatcheries to help restore our fishing industry in the valley,” she says.

A road would give more Alaskans access to fish and game. “Currently, the area is accessible to only a small group of people with access to private planes or watercraft,” says Arno. “Friends of West Susitna leadership believes a road moves us closer to opening the area for outdoor recreation like fishing, hunting, snowmachine travel, hiking, and boating without unduly impacting the environment. It could also create economic opportunities tied to tourism, resource development, agriculture, and timber harvest.”

Among the organization’s core beliefs is fiscal responsibility, stating that the cost of the road should not fall entirely on the State of Alaska. Similar to the Red Dog Mine transportation corridor model, the WSAP should generate revenue to offset the cost of the road. The group believes the Red Dog Mine model was a successful AIDEA-led project, and WSAP can be similarly successful.

“We live here year-round and are confident the community supports this road project, especially when they learn more about the benefits it offers to the entire Mat-Su Borough and beyond,” says Sullivan-Leonard. “This area should be accessible to more residents, not fewer. The road project will make that possible, which means progress for people who live here.”

Public access is also among the Friends of West Susitna’s core beliefs, and the group believes that access is critical and should be provided on the road, noting that it is also important to balance safe public use with industry use.

“Having access to this land will open up numerous opportunities for economic development while also providing recreation access for all Alaskans,” says Herman. “And most importantly, the project will create significant job opportunities for Alaskans.”