AIDEA Applies for West Susitna Access Environmental Review
Looking west over the Susitna watershed.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) submitted a permit application to the US Army Corps of Engineers, starting the process of environmental review for the West Susitna Access Road (WSAR).
Heading to the Sunset
“Today marks the beginning of the process to evaluate an access route to unlock opportunities in the fastest-growing region of the state,” says AIDEA Executive Director Alan Weitzner. “We know the area is home to tremendous economic potential and offers recreational opportunities for residents of the Mat-Su Borough and all Alaskans.”
The intended route is approximately 100 miles long from the west end of the Ayrshire Road 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 WSAR would be a year-round road with at least eleven major bridges, in some sections paralleling the historic Iditarod Trail.
AIDEA has partnered with Australian firm Nova Minerals to develop the Estelle gold project, a mining district with a collection of 346 claims that the WSAR would connect to the highway system. (Not to be confused with Novagold, the Canadian company developing the Donlin gold prospect near the Kuskokwim River.)
The West Susitna Access Project was identified as a priority in the State of Alaska’s 2014 Road to Resources report. In 2019, AIDEA and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough agreed to provide a framework for a phased feasibility analysis. The Alaska Legislature appropriated $8.5 million in project funding in 2021 for AIDEA to carry out the third and final phase of a feasibility analysis, which included hiring a contractor to assist with applying to the Corps of Engineers to begin the environmental impact study.
In April of this year, the Mat-Su Borough completed a stakeholder engagement process after assembly members asked for additional public outreach. That effort involved direct mail, virtual meetings, digital advertising, social media posts, and other communications tactics. The Corps of Engineers approval process triggers additional opportunity for community input, which is also part of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources best interest finding process, required as a pre-condition for granting a right of way over state lands.
The West Susitna Access route, shown in green, would extend from the Port MacKenzie area, bridging the Susitna River and then following the same right-of-way as a proposed 14-inch diameter pipeline that would supply Cook Inlet natural gas to the Donlin Gold mine.
The Corps of Engineers will evaluate AIDEA’s permit application and initiate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance process when they deem appropriate. The Corps of Engineers will decide how and when the NEPA process begins. Typically, it involves gathering input from stakeholders, conducting detailed analysis (issuing notices), and accepting and responding to public comments, among other actions.
“Alaska is a resource state, and the constitution requires us to evaluate how to maximize the use of our resources to benefit all Alaskans. If built, the proposed West Susitna Road Project would mean much more than extracting the state-owned minerals essential for a modern economy, and the family-wage jobs it creates for Alaskans,” says Governor Mike Dunleavy. “It would also mean new recreational opportunities for Alaskans and thousands of additional acres of land available for agriculture to help our state be more food secure. The feasibility analysis AIDEA is about to undertake will provide the state and stakeholders with the information needed to make informed decisions about whether or not to proceed with the proposed road project.”