Sustaining the Susitna River in Alaska

Water & wetlands in the West Susitna Valley. Photo by Eric Booton.

What an industrial access road means for a remote region with some of the best hunting and fishing in southcentral Alaska. 

Alaska’s expansive Susitna River is the 15th largest in the U.S., with tributaries fanning out through an area larger than each of the nine smallest states. The Susitna River, meaning “river of sand,” meanders through the traditional lands of the Dena’ina Alaska Native people. The Susitna River is a premiere sportfishing destination, attracting anglers, locals and visitors alike. Thousands of river miles offer valuable habitat for healthy populations of wild Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, Arctic Grayling, Dolly Varden and more. Notably, it’s the fourth largest Chinook salmon producer in the state of Alaska, an accolade of increasing importance as we watch the health of an immensely significant species continue to slip.

A wild rainbow trout caught in the West Susitna Valley. Photo and fish by Eric Booton.

The land west of the Susitna currently has no roads.  This remote region exemplifies Alaska’s wild character and offers some of the most-prized hunting and fishing grounds in southcentral Alaska. In addition, the western Susitna River basin hosts recreation and economic opportunities that are uniquely Alaskan – remote cabins and homesteads, lodges and guide operations, whitewater rafting and kayaking, recreational and small-scale mining, dog sledding and snow machining, as well as trapping.

The West Susitna Access Road

A new proposal for an industrial access road draws into question the future of this region. The West Susitna Access road, proposed by Alaska Industrial Development & Export Authority (AIDEA), is a 100+ mile road designed with the intention to access  mineral, agriculture, timber and oil resources in the area. If built, the road would traverse the basin, crossing thousands of acres of wetlands habitat and at least 156 streams. The selected route would require 11 bridges and 145 culverts, 90 of which would be designed for fish passage. View the proposed route of the West Susitna Access road here.

Construction of the proposed West Susitna Access road would fragment a large amount of fish and wildlife habitat, and likely cause significant degradation. It has been planned as “road to resources” raising significant questions about future use and impacts. As the West Susitna Access Road is being quietly ushered through the permitting process, it is hardly known among the public, and many of the anglers, hunters, outdoor enthusiasts, and businesses who will be directly affected by its construction have not been made aware of the proposal. This is particularly troublesome because the road would be funded with public dollars and is slated to cost Alaskans over $350 million.

The proposed road will directly impact public lands, local businesses, individual anglers and Alaskans, but a substantial effort has yet to be made to educate or engage the public. Phase II of the West Susitna Access road required AIDEA to conduct “public outreach,” which was limited to a virtual open house on the project, which few people knew about. When we consider projects with the potential to have broad ramifications to local communities and an area that so many people recreate, a robust public engagement is critical. Despite the minimal public outreach conducted by AIDEA, and overwhelming outcry of concern by its omission during Assembly meetings, on 12/21/21 the Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly voted in favor of the project advancing the project to Phase III.

Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers Management Plan

The West Susitna Access road, as proposed, would cross three rivers that have special protections by the state of Alaska. There are six rivers in the Susitna River basin designated as a “Recreational River” under the Recreational Rivers Act, which was passed by the Alaska State Legislature in 1988. The subsequent Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers plan was created in 1991 to ensure recreational access, and maintain important characteristics of Alexander Creek, Deshka River, Lake Creek, Little Susitna River, Talachulitna River and Talkeetna River. The plan was created over the course of three years with collaboration between agencies, organizations, and the legislature, along with input from thousands of Alaskans.  The management plan includes guidelines that ensure important characteristics of these rivers and public access for the diverse recreation opportunities they host are maintained during any development of the area, including a mile-wide corridor along each river for public and recreation access.

Chinook salmon caught and released on the Deshka River – a Susitna Basin “Recreational River”. Photo provided by Eric Booton.

The current management plan has been an effective tool for stewardship of the six Recreational Rivers, all of which remain healthy as destinations for hunters and anglers. The current management plan poses detrimental challenges for the construction of the West Susitna Access road, which would impact the Little Susitna River, Talachulitna River, and Alexander Creek. Review the Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers Management Plan here.

During the 2021 Legislative Session, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy introduced Senate Bill 97 to repeal the Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers Management Plan, jeopardizing the health of six of the region’s most important rivers to recreational users and easing access for the industrial road. As the bill has not yet succeeded in the legislature, Governor Dunleavy directed the Department of Natural Resources to convene an Advisory Board to review the Management Plan. The Advisory Board is currently comprised of 13 members representing different user groups, including extractive industry employees and state agency staff, and it is hosting monthly meetings to review the Management Plan.

While change in this region is inevitable, the importance of these rivers for recreation, hunting, fishing and more for area residents and Alaskans remains consistent and will only grow in value as development continues to encroach on wild lands and wild waters. The Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers Management Plan is a gift to the future residents who will inherit these wild rivers and it is our duty to sustain that gift – anything less is a disservice to current and future outdoor enthusiasts.

The Little Susitna River –a Susitna Basin “Recreational River”. Photo by Eric Booton.

Get Involved – West Susitna Access Road

In early 2022, the Mat-Su Borough launched a project website for the West Susitna Access road and is accepting public comments on the project until March 31st, 2022. Public meetings will take place on February 23 and March 23from 4-7pm, featuring presentations at 4, 5, & 6 pm. These will be good opportunities to learn more and provide comments on the project.

The permitting process for the West Susitna Access road is still underway, but it’s rapid pace, publicly funded price tag, risks to outdoor recreation and subsistence, and lack of public engagement are concerning. We will keep you informed as we learn more, but now is the time to share with the Mat-Su Borough your take on the West Susitna Access road.

Looking to learn more?

Read the Anchorage Daily News’ recent article.

The Susitna River Coalition, a group of local citizens from the Susitna Valley, has an extensive overview of the West Susitna Access road on their website.

Get Involved – Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers Management Plan

The Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers Advisory Board is meeting monthly. Each meeting is an opportunity to learn more and provide input on how the Management Plan benefits you and your use of the area. It is anticipated that in a public scoping comment period will be open this spring so that DNR and the Advisory Board can learn from recreational users how they use the area and what changes, or lack thereof, they wish to see to the management plan – you won’t want to miss this opportunity to comment.

You can find the calendar of upcoming Advisory Board meetings and link to access them at DNR’s online public notice. The currently scheduled meetings are on February 12, March 16 and April 20 from 10 am – 12 pm.

Susitna River Coalition also has a helpful overview of the history of Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers Management Plan.

The 1991 Management Plan was developed with robust public engagement and is a strong management plan – Trout Unlimited will be pushing to ensure the Management Plan review includes similarly strong public process and that the spirit of the original Management Plan is maintained, should any changes be considered.

Stay tuned for further updates on the West Susitna Access road and the Susitna Basin Recreational Rivers Management Plan. We’ll keep you informed of any progress made and opportunities for public engagement.

Questions? Don’t hesitate to reach out to Eric Booton.