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West Susitna Access Road Touted at Mat-Su Economic Summit

by | Apr 29, 2024 | Featured, Government, Mining, News, Transportation

Josie Wilson, director of communications and external affairs at the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, speaks about the West Susitna Access Project at the Mat-Su Regional Spring Economic Summit at Evangelo’s Restaurant in Wasilla.

Alaska Business

“Everything Runs Through Us” was the theme of the Mat-Su Regional Spring Economic Summit hosted by the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce April 24 and 25. Speakers lauded the Matanuska-Susitna Borough as the best place in Alaska to do business, but said it could be better.

“I think what the Mat-Su needs more than anything is an economic driver, so it’s not just a bedroom community… but a place that drives additional legacy jobs so that my grandkids will have a nice place to live and an industry that supports them and helps move America forward and compete globally, so that the idea of freedom can continue to live on,” says Tim Breeden, vice president and commercial loan officer with Northrim Bank.

The economic driver that many at the meeting addressed was mining, one of the development prospects envisioned at the end of a West Susitna Access Road.

Access to Undeveloped Land

Tim Smith, president and CEO of US GoldMining, says his company is working on a preliminary economic assessment to determine whether its Whistler Gold-Copper Project is financially viable. Drilling in 2023 confirmed the continuity of high-grade, near-surface minerals and demonstrated that the deposit extended beyond previous known boundaries.

The Whistler project is about 100 miles northwest of Anchorage, tucked behind the Tordrillo Mountains in the Alaska Range. A year-round camp exists about 10 miles southeast of Rainy Pass Lodge.

According to technical reports, the mine contains more than 6.5 million ounces, both indicated and inferred, of gold and about 1,133 million pounds, indicated and inferred, of copper, as well as an estimated 24 million ounces of silver, both indicated and inferred.

Smith told summit attendees that the time is right for proceeding with the mining project, but the key to development lies in the West Susitna Access Road.

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“We couldn’t build the mine without that road,” Smith says. “It will produce millions of tons of metal—gold and copper—over years. We have yet to determine the exact quantities, but certainly it is a sizable deposit… We couldn’t do it by fly-in, fly-out, for example.”

Josie Wilson, director of communications and external affairs for the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), says the Whistler mine, which will offer an estimated 500 jobs during operation, might be the largest project that stands to benefit from West Susitna access, but it is not the only one.

Nova Minerals’ Estelle Gold Project, which borders Whistler, comprises four mineral source deposits over two main areas and has a 2024 drilling plan that aims to further measure the resources. Wilson noted that the Estelle project could bring between 200 and 400 operating jobs.

US GoldMining has two other deposits as part of the Whistler project, Island Mountain and Raintree West, which could bring nearly 600 additional jobs. Wilson calls all of those projects the tip of the iceberg; more than 3,000 active mining claims exist within the basin.

On top of mining access, Wilson says, road access would open up recreational opportunities, provide an avenue for oil and gas and alternative energy exploration, allow for timber harvests, and open the Susitna Valley for potential agricultural uses.

Revenue Boost for Government

The route of the West Susitna Access Project is still being studied.

Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority

An October 2022 economic study by McKinley Research Group, prepared for the Office of the Governor, estimates that mining revenue could total $7 million in taxes and royalties for the state and the Mat-Su Borough annually from just the Estelle Gold project, with $4.4 million estimated for the Mat-Su Borough in property tax and, once in production, an estimated $4.3 million in corporate net income tax would be paid to the state over sixteen years.

The road project received an $8.5 million capital appropriation from the Alaska Legislature in 2022. In 2023, the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) included a two-phase West Susitna Access Road project in its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, essentially breaking the project into two parts.

The DOT&PF project has two phases: the first phase includes 17 miles of 24-foot wide new road at Little Su Road to the south bank of the Susitna River, building two bridges across the Little Susitna River and Fish Creek in the process, and ending in a boat launch at the Susitna River. The second phase would build 5 more miles to a proposed materials site near Alexander Creek, with bridges across the Susitna River and Alexander Creek. The two projects total more than $76 million. A request for proposals for project environmental, design, and engineering is currently underway.

AIDEA has also asked the Legislature for permission to borrow up to $300 million to be spent in support of mining projects related to “critical minerals” statewide, some of which could be used for the West Susitna region.

The project is not without its detractors. Lodge owners whose businesses depend on the isolation and wilderness, along with others opposed to the road, teamed up to form the Alaska Range Alliance in 2022 and launched a $200,000 advertising campaign to block the project. The Susitna River Coalition, a group initially formed to oppose the Susitna-Watana Dam project, also opposes the road, as does Defend the West Su, a group that states on its website that an industrial road through the network of rivers and creeks coming from the Alaska Range would cause “irreversible harm to rivers, wetlands, and other critical fish and wildlife habitat across the Susitna watershed and waste millions of dollars the state cannot afford.”

To advocate for the road, Skwentna Roadhouse owner Cindi Herman formed a coalition called Friends of West Susitna. The group argues that more Alaskans should be able to reach the area. Currently, the only road access west of the Little Susitna River is a winter-only trail to the Fish Creek Natural Resource Management Unit.

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Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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