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Alaska lodge to haul heavy equipment through wilderness for Susitna dam project

Jerzy Shedlock

In the rush to begin preliminary work related to the Susitna-Watana Hydro project, a proposed dam in Southcentral Alaska that if completed would be the second-tallest in the U.S., a remote lodge’s plans to haul heavy equipment through the wilderness has worried small town Alaskans.

The Alaska Energy Authority is in charge of the megaproject, which has an estimated cost of $5.2 billion. In early April, the Alaska Legislature approved $95.2 million though the state’s most recent capital budget, which totaled $2.2 billion. Federal regulators approved the project’s remaining study plans earlier this month; workers will start environmental fieldwork as Alaska transitions from a lingering spring to summer.

Stephan Lake Lodge, a fly-in lodge located 140 miles from Anchorage in the Talkeetna Mountains, was awarded the remote camp services for the fieldwork, which will occur over the next five years. The lodge’s contract for housing lasts two years but could be extended.

To accommodate the field workers, the lodge is expanding an airstrip and constructing housing and offices -- work that requires the use of heavy equipment. John Madsen, owner of the lodge, confirmed the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Tyonek Native Corporation granted permits for the equipment’s delivery, APRN reported.

The permits allow the lodge to drag equipment overland in a cat-train to the site. On Wednesday, crews began loading the equipment onto Alaska Railroad flatbeds. The equipment included a Caterpillar D6 tractor, excavators and nodwells, among other construction apparatus, according to Richard Leo, chair of the dam opposition group Susitna Dam Alternatives, and a Chase resident. More equipment made its way to Talkeetna throughout Friday, local residents told Leo.

What worries the residents is potential scars that dragging the equipment overland from Gold Creek, where the train will be unloaded, to Stephan Lake may leave on the terrain. The DNR permit protects against such damage by limiting the transportation of the equipment to “winter travel,” moving the tractors and fuel tanks over snowpack.

The DNR permit, issued to lodge employee Ben Stevenson, came with the following stipulations: “The winter operation of ground contact vehicles for off-road travel must be limited to areas where ground frost and snow cover are adequate to prevent damage to the vegetative mat and underlying substrate” and “Ice or snow bridges constructed at stream crossings shall not contain extraneous material (i.e. soil, rock, brush, or vegetation) and shall be removed immediately after use or prior to breakup. River ice shall be slotted to facilitate water flow during breakup,” plus one additional winter cross-country travel requirement.

Chase resident Mike Wood considers the above impossible. The ground along the proposed path is thawing. Disturbing vegetation is inevitable, he said. Temperatures in the Susitna Valley varied from mid-20s to low-40s during the past three days, according to the National Weather Service.

Wood woke up early Thursday morning and drove his snowmachine up the Susitna River to photograph the route through Gold Creek. He continued down the McWilliams Gold Creek trail, which miners began constructing in 1948 when gold claims were filed for Baking Creek.

According to the department’s Mining, Land & Water division, the trail originates in Gold Creek at Mile 263 of the Alaska Railroad. It heads eastward along the base of the Susitna Mountains then turns south and climbs onto a plateau south of the Susitna River. The trail continues to a tributary of Chunilna Creek. The route is about 36 miles.

For eight miles, Wood spotted signs of travel. After that came what he called “virgin wilderness.”

The Cat-train will follow the trail before heading out onto Alaska’s tundra, with no trail provided. The terrain's muskeg, an acidic soil synonymous with the Arctic, will be damaged along with black spruce covering the tundra, Wood said. “The contractor will invalidate the permit the second the equipment gets off the rail system,” he said. “You’re not supposed to disturb vegetation; it’s only across snow travel … How are they supposed to get through the spruce without cutting stuff down or endangering the vegetation?”

The train left Talkeetna for Gold Creek at about 5 p.m. Friday. Madsen declined to comment on the situation. The permit is effective between April 8 and May 15 unless terminated at the state’s discretion. There’s also a performance guarantee associated with the permit. If the contractor breaks any of the permit’s stipulations, he’ll forfeit $10,000.

Leo argued AEA should have granted the contract to Stephan Lake Lodge earlier in the winter; supplies and fuel could have been flown into the camp during a period in which the ground was frozen solid, making the trip all the more feasible. Now, conditions are too soft, he said.

Although the equipment is being shipped for the benefit of the proposed Susitna dam project, AEA spokesperson Emily Ford said the agency isn’t involved in the transfer. She said none of the equipment is owned by AEA, and the airstrip expansion and field camp construction is a “private business decision,” albeit one that fulfills the lodge’s contract with the organization.

The lodge was awarded the contract in early April, and there were no plans for early winter transport. AEA did not apply for a DNR permit, she added.

Ford said the agency is confident that Stephan Lake Lodge is following the stipulations set out by the permit.

“The permit does specify that it’s over snowpack,” she said. “They’re playing by the rules, they’re playing by the book, and we’re working with the lodge to make sure they’re fulfilling all those obligations and moving the equipment as permitted.”

The state can deem the conditions unsuitable at any time before or during the equipment’s delivery to the camp, she added.

If the cat-train makes it to the camp, the field workers will be situated just 13 miles from the proposed site of the dam. There were multiple bids for the camp, and location was one of the deciding factors, Ford said.

Fieldwork will occur in the lower, middle and upper portions of the river, covering more than 186,000 acres.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com