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Lisa Phu
Alaska Beacon

Some Nenana-area residents and tribal citizens say a state road project outside Nenana should be paused after what they describe as a failure by the state to adequately engage the public. The state wants to build 20 miles of new road to open access to agricultural opportunities and improve food security. But tribal members say expanding Totchaket Road will go through ancestral land and further exhaust subsistence opportunities.

Eva Burk said the state has already formulated the majority of the plan for the road “without us, so it feels like we’re getting railroaded.” Burk is the vice chair of the Toghotthele Corporation, the village Native corporation for Nenana.

And Caroline Ketzler, Nenana Native Council’s first chief, said the tribe has had little input into the project and the process has been rushed. The council opposes the new road development, Ketzler said.

“All the tribe is asking is to be included in these processes, as well as these decisions and ideas, and to have everybody slow down on these plans, just so they can get the right assessments done for historical sites and ancestral lands,” Ketzler said.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ Nenana Totchaket Road project involves improving the existing 12 miles of road and extending it west an additional 20 miles to end near the Kantishna River.

Ketzler had known the state planned to work on the existing road, but she said she didn’t learn about the extension until this summer.

“It leads to a village called Toklat, an old village. My grandma was born there on the river. It’s a historical ancestral site and there are burial grounds there as well. None of these questions were asked by the state, by DOT, by really anyone before hammering down and making these plans specific,” Ketlzer said.

According to the state, the project would provide improved access to the valley west of Nenana for agriculture, hunting, fishing and other recreational uses. The project received $15 million from the state’s capital budget.

Ketzler said there’s already too many hunters in the area, most of them non-Native, competing for the same resources.

“You know, in our culture, we’re taught to only take what we need,” she said.

Ketzler said her 97-year-old uncle and cousins go back to Ketzler slough, a slough off the Kantishna River named after her family, every fall to hunt for moose for their family and elders.

“And they said, ‘We just can’t compete. We’re outnumbered. There are too many people,’” she said.

Ketzler also said the new road extension would harm valuable ecosystems and doesn’t want the state to cut more road “into a place that’s been untouched the entirety of its lifetime.”

“Wasn’t ideal timing”

The state started preliminary outreach for the Totchaket Road improvements and expansion late last year. A scoping letter from the state was sent to various groups and agencies on Dec. 23, 2021.

Jonathan Hutchinson, project manager for the Nenana Totchaket Road, said the letter being sent so close to the holidays “wasn’t ideal timing.”

“We didn’t have a lot of time before that. Like, we had just gotten funding to even start working on a project, I think, three or four weeks before that. And so the timing was such that we rushed that thing to get it out the door,” Hutchinson said.

He added that there wasn’t a firm due date for scoping comments, which is typically 30 days, and the comment period was left open. Scoping is the initial phase in a review process in which issues to be studied and addressed are identified.

December is also when a lot of village and regional corporations hold elections, said Burk, vice chair of the Toghotthele Corporation.

“The first time we were given notice about this road was during that time frame,” Burk said. “Most of us were new to the office and didn’t even have our email set up to intercept that communication until after the fact. Or, got it and we don’t have time to address it because we’re getting back to the office after being off for a couple of weeks.”

Burk also thinks the timing of a Sept. 10 public meeting in Nenana was poor and doesn’t allow for a robust response from the community.

“You can’t hold a public meeting in a rural community that is heavily dependent on moose hunting during moose hunting season and then have people have time to sit down and write a well thought-out comment when they’re getting off to the river dealing with moose meat,” Burk said.

“Just the timing of something like this is so inappropriate. It doesn’t give enough people the chance to speak up or be present,” she said.

For his part, Hutchinson said DOT consulted with Toghotthele Corporation to come up with a date for the September meeting. The reach out occurred on Aug. 31, though, one day before moose hunting season in the area begins.

Hutchison said DOT is not targeting certain dates to avoid public comments.

“We’re out here doing these public meetings that we don’t have to be doing; it’s not a required part of the process, but we’re out here doing it,” he said.

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DOT also had a table at the June 10 Nenana Agricultural Education Day to share information about the road project. The project page for the Nenana Totchaket Road lists the event as a public meeting.

City of Nenana mayor Joshua Verhagen said the road expansion has been part of the community’s development plan for several decades.

“It’s not a new thing,” he said, adding that the city has long supported expanding the road and is a partner in the DOT project.

Still, Verhagen had concerns with the state’s process as well. He said DOT could have done better with outreach and letting the community know about the Sept. 10 public meeting.

“That was one thing that I think that they kind of failed at,” he said, though doesn’t think it was intentional. “They decided to put out notice only a few days beforehand to kind of meet their timeline, and I think they could have done better.”

The same goes with sharing work from all the studies DOT has conducted.

“They could have spent a bit more time developing relationships with the local community members and entities and just giving more information,” Verhagen said.

Public comments on the road project are due by Sept. 30. Hutchinson said DOT takes the public involvement process and stakeholders’ comments “very seriously.” He’s already received a mix of comments representing “both sides of the spectrum.”

“We’re still collecting comments and we’ll be addressing every single one of them,” he said.

Though a date hasn’t been set, Hutchinson said DOT is ramping up for a stakeholder-focused meeting in Nenana “looking at networking more with the tribe, with Toghotthele, the city and other interested parties.”

Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project

The Totchaket Road expansion is part of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project, which is aimed at opening around 140,000 acres of agricultural land.

In Phase 1A of the project, which opened in June, the state is selling land for bid by Oct. 4. Some of the 27 parcels totaling 2,000 acres in the current auction are accessible from the existing Totchaket Road. The 20-mile road extension will increase access to the rest of the 140,000 acres of land, according to DNR Director of Communications Lorraine Henry.

“Additional land sales are expected to roll out slowly over the next 30 years, and would benefit from expansion of the Nenana Totchaket Road,” Henry wrote in an email.

The 27 lots in the current land sale range from around 20 acres to around 300 acres. The sale “will allow the state to gauge market interest in small vs. large parcels, as well as the type of agricultural interest: i.e. row crops, livestock, and grain/hay,” according to Henry.

There is no one lead manager for the Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project, as it’s a joint effort between DNR’s Division of Agriculture and the Division of Mining, Land, and Water, said Henry. Mia Kirk is currently Division of Agriculture’s interim director after former Director Dave Schade resigned Sept. 2. Kirk was previously a natural resources manager within the division. DNR, itself, is being run by interim commissioner Akis Gialopsos, Dunleavy’s former deputy chief of staff and legislative director, after Corri Feige resigned June 30.

The agricultural project is part of an effort to make Alaska food secure and independent. In February, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an administrative order establishing the Alaska Food Security and Independence Task Force. A draft report on findings and recommendations is set to be released Oct. 1, followed by a public comment period.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy

Gov. Mike Dunleavy

Earlier this month, Dunleavy signed another administrative order, creating the Office of Food Security. It will operate within the Office of the Governor and is responsible for coordinating the state’s efforts related to food security and serving as the first point of contact with agriculture, mariculture, food processing and other related industries, according to a press release. Governor spokesperson Jeff Turner said the Office of Food Security is not officially staffed, but Andrew Jensen was named the policy adviser for food security and agriculture in the governor’s office. Jensen still works in communications in the governor’s office as well as serve as spokesperson for Dunleavy’s reelection campaign.

The Alaska Legislature is also set to establish an Alaska Food Strategy Task Force. Last session, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Liz Snyder’s House Bill 298 passed, which creates the task force as well as forgivable loan programs for farm development and meat processing facilities. Dunleavy signed the bill into law this summer. The task force is supposed to begin work early next year and deliver its first round of recommendations by Aug. 1, 2023.

Tribal consultation

DOT could start improvements to the existing 12 miles of Totchaket Road as early as late October, Hutchinson said, and is targeting summer of 2023 to start construction on the new road.

So far in the project, the state has been conducting environmental studies, looking at locations for possible material sources and assessing different route alternatives. The state has secured a contractor, Brice Inc., to help DOT with permits, design and other project details.

Hutchinson said the state also recently wrapped up the project’s cultural resource study, though it’s still being finalized and is not yet available to the public. When it is ready, he said it will be shared with stakeholders.

Burk, vice chair of the Toghotthele Corporation, said it’s time for the state to pause. “We have made it known that we do not support this, but they keep moving forward,” she said.

“Basically, we just want to put the brakes on this until more information is gathered and more consultation is done with the locals,” Burk said. “If we allow this road to be built, it cannot be undone.”

Ketzler, Nenana Native Council’s first chief, is clear about what tribal consultation looks like.

“Any entity – whether it be DOT, the state or even the city – talking to one person out of the entire tribal council does not consist of consulting the tribal council,” Ketzler said. “You should always come before the tribal council as a whole in an official meeting. That is definitely not what has been going on.”

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This article was first published in the Alaska Beacon.