Alaska’s Road to Nowhere
All hail Ted Stevens, king of pork, the man who brings the bacon home to the state of Alaska. US Senator Stevens has managed to secure $365 million of federal money, earmarked to bring a road to the deprived citizens of Juneau, who currently rely on one of the most stunning and dependable ferry systems on the planet for their transportation needs. We're talking about fucking with an award-winning public transportation system and replacing it with a dangerous, environmentally destructive conduit for private automobiles. All this in a time when the US's resources are stretched to the limit by our fanatical quest to import free-market capitalism to the few remaining countries that have not yet embraced our economic colonialism. Is America great or what?
At first, the Juneau road plan just seemed stupendously dangerous and environmentally devastating. The proposed thoroughfare would follow the east side of the Lynn Canal—the nation's longest, deepest fjord—across approximately 40 avalanche chutes. Any third grader can tell you the effects of punching a road through untrammeled wilderness, carving a shelf for cars along dramatic rock faces under which Stellar sea lions, humpback whales and five different species of salmon frolic. In a word: catastrophic.
Now that all the details are in, the plan reads like a twisted joke. Here's the punch line: after crossing all those avalanche chutes, traversing sheer cliffs and destroying the mouth of a pristine, wild and scenic river, the road will arrive at... a new ferry terminal. Where citizens of Juneau will once again have to arrange their lives around a boat schedule—the very predicament this road was supposed to ameliorate in the first place. Stevens' plan involves laying 70 miles of new road and also building a new ferry terminal—maybe two—plus a new ferry to shuttle people three miles across the canal to the fishing village of Haines (where residents are vehemently opposed to this whole road business anyway).
A dangerous, expensive plan, plus an ugly road, and add to that angry residents: what gives? Sure, Stevens has road-building, ferry-constructing friends who stand to rake in fistfuls of cash, but the plot is thicker and more diabolical than naked profit. Take a spin through the Juneau International Airport and rest your eyes on a glass-encased display called "Mineral Resources of Southeast Alaska." The largest band of known mineral deposits is north of Juneau at the Kensington mine, just out of reach of the current road system. There are also significant deposits on the east side of the Lynn Canal, exactly at the terminus of the proposed road.
In other words, Stevens and his cronies want to federally subsidize mining roads. Cynical optimists forecast the project will mysteriously run out of money once it reaches Kensington. Beyond Kensington, who can calculate exactly what wealth is imprisoned in the rocks beneath the east side of the Lynn Canal, tantalizingly out of reach unless a road is completed?
Southeast Alaska—a thin curve of rain soaked islands, massive ice fields and mountain-lined fjords bristling with western hemlock and Sitka spruce—is a road-builders' nightmare. Craggy mountains, many of which have never felt hiking boots on their flanks, rise to 6,500 feet. Glaciers calve into the still waters and extend for miles inland. Frequent avalanches, heavy Winter snows and months of dreary, icy rain close existing roads for extended periods every year.
Of the 15 major communities in the entire 600-mile stretch, only three—Hyder, Haines and Skagway—have road access to the rest of the world. To give you a sense of the utility of the road system in this part of the world: Haines is only 15 miles south of Skagway; by ferry, the journey takes just under an hour. By car, the journey is 365 miles and takes you around an enormous field of ice and through northern British Columbia and the sub-arctic desert of the Yukon Territories before curving back around to the coastal tourist playground of Skagway. This winding, beautiful trip is referred to as the Golden Circle and makes for an excellent weekend drive, but is not a practical way of getting from one place to another.
The harsh topography of the region means that most of its 70,000 residents rely on the state's ferry service for their transportation needs. But it's not just residents; each year, thousands of people travel from all over the world to ride the Alaska Marine Highway System, one of the last viable and convenient public transport systems in our country. It's kind of like a public cruise ship, minus the rich people and shuffleboard. The scar of a 70-mile ribbon of asphalt would seriously mar this designated scenic byway.
The road would only affect the roughly 33,000 residents of Juneau, Haines and Skagway, the three towns along the Lynn Canal. Slightly more than half the residents of Juneau are in favor of the road, but many don't know that the road won't reach all the way to Skagway. The residents of Haines and Skagway overwhelmingly oppose the ridiculous project. Folks from Skagway are particularly incensed, as they were originally promised a road that would allow them to drive to the state's capital. The current plan would mean that instead of getting on a ferry and arriving in Juneau five hours later, they would have to get on a ferry, unload, transfer to another ferry and then drive a dangerous mountain road to get to the state capital.
Road builders, former miners and environmentalists all predict the road will cost at least three times the $365 million Stevens has managed to secure. Which of our current meager social services will be cut in order to fund this preposterous plan?
If the road does get built, the state of Alaska will be left with the task of maintaining the 70 miles of asphalt. Roads out of Haines and Skagway are regularly closed during late Winter and early Spring, and desperate attempts to lure bidders to the thankless task of plowing existing streets in southeast Alaska towns attest to the difficulty of maintaining the current road system. Despite a glut of oil money, roads in southeast Alaska are notoriously poorly maintained. This one will be no different.
Locals have held a plethora of community meetings to counteract the government-sponsored road propaganda. This Summer saw the establishment of a short-lived base camp at the location of the proposed new ferry terminal. Three stalwart lunatics braved 27-foot tides to hang a banner reading "No Road! Keep it Wild!" Survey stakes, flags and markers have been meticulously removed and disposed of.
But knowledge of the plan—let alone organized resistance—has been severely lacking south of the 49th parallel. Mainstream environmental groups, like the Lynn Canal and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) are fighting the plan locally and could use your assistance. But surely a reader like you can do better than that.
The rainy, icy Autumn and Winter months severely limit road construction, as well as radical resistance. But this is a perfect time for strategizing and planning Spring and Summer actions to halt further progress on the silly scheme. Next Summer, hardcore residents will be mounting ever more serious campaigns to shut down further construction. Will you join them?
For more information, contact SEACC, 419 6th St., #200, Juneau, AK 99801; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pippi the Rat lived for two Winters in Southeast Alaska, where this longtime vegan learned to love salmon and moose meat.
© Earth First! Journal November-December 2006