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Susitna River Coalition Comments on DNR Permit for Winter Trail to Dam Site

by Phillip Manning ~ December 2nd, 2013

A Talkeetna-based group has drafted comments for a land use permit that could help establish a winter road for the Susitna Watana Hydroelectric project.  The permit, if granted, would allow for a winter route for the next five years from the Denali Highway to a point near the proposed dam site.  The plan would be to set up a camp there for future studies for the dam’s licensing process.  Cruz Construction of Wasilla is the permit applicant, and would use the trail to make as many as forty round trips to haul in research and camp gear, starting in February.

The Susitna River Coalition, formerly known as the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives, has listed a number of concerns with the permit application.  According to a written statement, the Coalition is concerned over the ability of the Department of Natural Resources to conduct sufficient oversight on a five year permit.  They would prefer that the permit be subject to review each year.  They say this is also important because the impact of new access on the backcountry is unknown. The Coalition says an annual review would allow D-N-R to assess any changes due to increased use not only by heavy equipment, but also private ATVs and snowmachines.   The Coalition is also concerned that the winter route could constitute a “backdoor” method of establishing a regular route to the proposed dam site.

In addition, the Coalition says that the current bonding requirements are inadequate, given the cost of cleaning up the site where a D6 bulldozer broke through the ice on a small pond in May, killing its operator.  The cleanup of petroleum and other hazardous materials cost around $36,000, and the Coalition says that removal of the bulldozer would cost an additional $200,000.  They are asking that the minimum bond be raised to $250,000 as a result.

If the permit is approved, Cruz Construction would be carrying out the establishment of the trail as well as the hauling of freight.  Cruz regularly contracts with the Mat-Su Borough and conducts many contracts on the North Slope.

Dave Cruz, owner of Cruz Construction, says that his company is well equipped to create and use the winter trail responsibly.  He says that the proposed route was scouted this fall, prior to heavy snowfall, in order to avoid stream crossings where possible. The trail follows a similar route to an old hunting trail, according to Cruz, and the proposed research camp site was one that was selected for studies in the 1980s when the state last took a look at damming the Susitna for hydropower. He says that the company would use Pisten Bully snowcats that are well suited to this kind of work to form and groom the trail.  He says that, unlike the cat-train traveling to Stephan Lake Lodge in May, this project would involve grooming the trail before using it with heavy equipment.

Cruz says that he sees the increased access as a good thing for residents of the area, since it would mean an easier way of accessing property that is off the Denali Highway.  As for the Denali Highway itself, it would remain unplowed, as is the norm for winter.  Access to the proposed trailhead would be made with a single groomed lane for equipment.

Both the Coalition and Cruz Construction note that this project is still in the feasibility stage.  The proposed study camp is on land owned by Knikatnu Village Corporation.  At this time, no contract exists between Cruz, Knikatnu, and the Alaska Energy Authority, which is handling the proposed dam project.  The trail, if built, would begin thirty-seven miles east of Cantwell on the Denali highway, and would travel just under fifty miles to its destination.

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