Lodge owners and activists launch $200,000 campaign to block state’s Susitna road proposal

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A new Alaska business-aligned coalition has announced it has launched a six-figure ad campaign to derail a major highway project members fear could damage and disrupt fish and wildlife in the Susitna Valley, northwest of Anchorage.

Proponents of the road, including Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state agency pushing the project forward, say they are still gathering information and analyzing the benefits of the West Susitna Access Road in terms of potential jobs and state revenue versus costs for fish, wildlife and tourism.

But the members of the Alaska Range Alliance are not waiting for the results of this analysis to launch their $200,000 campaign, with the mission of blocking the $350 million project before it starts.

“The goal is absolutely to kill him. There’s no doubt that none of us want a road there,” said alliance board member Steve Perrins, who runs the “rustic luxury” Rainy Pass Lodge in the United States. hinterland of the Susitna Valley – which he says is about 13km from where the proposed road might end. “We want this done and over, fast.”

The 100-mile project would traverse fish and wildlife habitat to an area attractive to mining companies in the foothills of the Alaska Range. west of the Susitna River. So far, there is no official guarantee of public access.

Dunleavy supported the road project. But members of the alliance say their campaign, at least for now, is targeting the state agency pushing the plan forward, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA.

AIDEA last month applied for a key permit under the Clean Water Act for the road, and the agency has previously been targeted by environmental and conservation groups. These groups have criticized the agency for pursuing what they see as marginal resource extraction projects in areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the alliance, in its campaign announcement this week, called the Susitna road project of “AIDEA tipper fire”.

[As federal permit review starts on road into West Susitna backcountry, public access remains priority]

Political leaders tend to favor development in the deeply conservative borough of Matanuska-Susitna, where the new road project would be located, and the local assembly has approved AIDEA’s permitting process.

At least one business along the route, Skwentna Roadhouse, supports the proposal, and it has a lobbyist on a $55,000 contract whose job includes promoting the project.

But the borough assembly has also heard testimony from dozens of people opposed to the road, and its critics include some conservative business owners like Perrins, who is otherwise aligned with Dunleavy and once appeared in an ad campaign aimed at boosting Republican U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan. .

“We’re business people who have to be able to dance and weave with things,” said Perrins, who stars in the new Road Against TV commercials. “These mining companies will totally crush you.”

Alan Weitzner, executive director of AIDEA, said the alliance’s campaign itself will raise public awareness of the proposed development, “which I think is a good thing”.

But in a phone interview, he disputed an argument made in the alliance’s TV ads: that AIDEA is trying to keep its plans for the road secret.

“At every phase AIDEA has been involved in the development of the route, there has been public engagement,” Weitzner said. “We’re trying to make sure there’s awareness, and if there are ways to improve that, I’m interested in trying to figure out how we can do that.”

Conservation groups have previously announced their opposition to West Susitna’s proposal. But the broadening of their coalition, to include conservatives and businessmen, is beginning to echo the debate over the Pebble prospect in southwest Alaska.

Indigenous activists, commercial fishing groups and wealthy lodge owners and patrons have banded together to lead this largely successful fight against the huge proposed mine in upper Bristol Bay, home to one of the largest salmon fisheries in the world.

The Alaska Range Alliance, which launched its TV, radio and digital ads this week, includes several Pebble debate veterans. Anders Gustafson, who led a key group opposed to Pebble, is the alliance’s executive director.

Scott Kendall, a longtime attorney for Pebble opponents, is the alliance’s legal counsel.

Other board members include retired fisherman and labor leader Vince Beltrami, the former owner of a snowmobile dealership in Anchorage, and Mike Overcast, co-owner of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge. The owners of the lodge said they raised funds from businesses and some of their customers.

Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, also co-owned by Olympic medal-winning skier Tommy Moe, sells heli-skiing and king salmon fishing trips in the area that the road would pass through. In a phone interview from the lodge, Overcast said his opposition was about protecting the area’s salmon habitat, which draws tourists from around the world to Alaska.

“I’m not a political person and I’m not interested in politics,” Overcast said. “But when something approaches you, you have no choice but to react.”

By February, AIDEA had spent approximately $625,000 developing the proposed route, including $8.5 million budgeted by the Legislature at Dunleavy’s request.

The governor’s office also recently hired a consulting firm, McKinley Research, to compare the economic impact of tourism businesses in the Susitna Valley with the potential value of development in the Yentna mining district, where the road would end. The Clean Water Act permitting process, Weitzner said, should help get more information about the road’s potential impacts.

“What we’ve seen with development and road access is that when you’re able to initiate and get the permitting process, it becomes a bit more real for parties who would invest resources and would lead to this saving. development,” he said. “The authorization allows him to prove what this process and these economic advantages can be. We ask to be given this opportunity.

Perrins said he feared the results of the economic analysis were a lost conclusion, citing McKinley Research’s work for the mining industry and the fact that one of the first questions he saw in the framework of the study concerned the potential benefits of the road.

“It doesn’t feel non-partisan to me,” he said.

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