Story and photos by Eric Booton
Susitna River tributaries are dynamic, exceedingly productive, conducive to numerous fishing techniques, and plentiful. Thousands of river miles create valuable habitat for large populations of salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, and Arctic grayling. They are ideal for anglers like me with a thirst to roam, cover river miles, and explore the next river bend, and are an unwavering favorite of the areas I fish regularly.
The Susitna River, meaning “river of sand,” meanders through the traditional lands of the Dena’ina Alaska Native people. The headwaters of the Susitna flow from the glacier-capped peaks of the Alaska Range, including America’s tallest peak, Denali. The Susitna drainage area is larger than nine of our states and the river is the 15th largest in the United States. These vast waters support large populations of fish and game found in few other places, including the fourth-largest king salmon population in Alaska.
The road accessible east Susitna River basin is a quick drive from Anchorage and just north of the fastest growing area of Alaska. Its quaint towns of Willow and Talkeetna are popular for weekend getaways, area trails and water bodies are a hub for year-round recreation, and nearly every stream the road crosses is worth wetting a line in.
Shauna Booton with a wild coho caught on a Yentna River tributary.
The river parallels the Parks Highway for many miles and acts as a barrier between the roadway and the boundless wild landscape to the west. The west Susitna River basin is not accessible by road and is favored by hunters, anglers and Alaskans with that special do-it-yourself gumption to swap the paved routes on the map for the opportunity that awaits along the boundless blue lines of the river system’s more remote reaches. With fewer habitat impacts and less pressure, west Susitna fisheries are more plentiful than their eastern counterparts and anglers are often treated to more liberal bag limits and fewer people.
Of course, there’s more to the area than hunting and fishing galore. The region hosts impressively diverse 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, snow machining, and trapping.
If you are a fan of this well-loved region, it’s time to sit up and take notice of a new project that puts a healthy layer of uncertainty over the future of the currently wild, less easily accessed, west Susitna River basin. Progress on a proposed industrial road, which has the potential to hit with a heavy impact, disrupting existing industries and tarnishing the experience of public land users, is moving at an alarming rate and I’ll bet a round of drinks it’s flying under your radar.
A bird’s-eye view of the meandering lower reaches of the Little Susitna River.
Minimal attention has been drawn to the West Susitna Access Road, as the developer, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), has conducted very little public outreach. Many of the remote property owners, fishing lodges, anglers and hunters that stand to be directly impacted by an industrial road and heavy machinery haven’t been notified about the proposal.
There are lots of questions about this project, and fewer answers. Here is what we know: The proposed West Susitna Access Road is a 107-mile road through the heart of the west Susitna basin. AIDEA is promoting it as a “road to resources” to create private access for mining, agriculture, timber and oil industries. As those familiar with the region know firsthand, it’s impossible to build a road without going through or over countless rivers, streams, wetlands and endless water features that our fish and wildlife depend on to thrive. Initial plans estimate the road will require 24 bridges and approximately 440 culverts, including a bridge over the mainstem of the Susitna River.
It’s impossible to dance around the fact that roads are hard on salmon. It is well documented that roads, and their fish-passage challenges, have contributed significantly to salmon declines throughout the Pacific Northwest. Locally, studies found that 80% of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s culverts are troublesome for fish and impede access to more than 400 miles of fish habitat for juvenile fish. There has been a large effort to fix the borough’s bad culverts, and new, thoughtful designs allow for less impact on fish populations, but there are always risks to the fish population when their habitat is significantly altered. It’s safe to predict that when poorly planned projects deny fish access to critical spawning and rearing habitat, their population numbers have nowhere to go but down.
It is important to be clear that the West Susitna Access Road will not be built to create access for the general population, but for private companies. During a December Mat-Su Borough Assembly meeting, AIDEA confirmed that public access would be extended only as far as the Susitna River and the road would be private beyond that. A public corporation, spending public dollars, building a road to solely benefit private industry, that will degrade highly valued public fish, wildlife and recreation resources is a hard pill for many Alaskans to swallow, and rightly so.
At this point, we can begin to estimate how significant and expansive the impacts of the West Susitna Access Road could be and there is little to indicate that there will be benefits for hunters and anglers. The public deserves more information. For example, we can only guess what cumulative impacts to our fishing and hunting resources will be as projects with new, publicly funded road access are proposed in the west Susitna region.
Bound for the Yentna River, you can see water and wetlands everywhere you look.
From my perspective, the West Susitna Access Road is but the tip of the iceberg of potential impacts the west Susitna River basin is facing, and the impact of the road alone carries much risk. Additionally, from the perspective of the health of wild fish, which are on the decline around the world and across the state, this is a risk too large to not take seriously. Now is the time to call into question this road, its inherent risks, and questionable benefits.
There is growing apprehension among those who are aware of the project. Hunters, anglers, landowners, business owners, and residents from across the region are rightly concerned about the proposal, and I’m with them. Accessed by boat, plane, dogsled, snowmachine, heck, even foot and bike, the west Susitna region is being put to outstandingly good and sustainable use without roads and vehicles. If we take care of the fish and rivers, they will continue to fuel some of the core parts of our Alaska way of life: fishing, hunting, and outdoor adventure. Do you share the desire for maintaining a wild and healthy west Susitna? Follow Trout Unlimited Alaska on Facebook and Instagram to stay informed.
Eric Booton is the Eklutna Project Manager and Sportsmen Coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program. Conserving and restoring fish habitat are his 9-5; chasing wild fish is his summer and fall pastime.