Juneau Creek Alternative Favored by CIRI Ultimately Selected
As any Alaskan sport fishing enthusiast can attest, “combat fishing” is very much a reality. Nowhere is this more apparent than near the confluence of the Kenai and Russian Rivers, not far from the town of Cooper Landing (population: 300).
Often overlooked is the “combat driving” Alaskans endure trying to pass through Cooper Landing along the Sterling Highway. During the summer, the narrow road is crowded with RVs, anglers, hikers and weekend warriors, with sharp road curves and inadequate shoulders posing a threat to both motorists and pedestrians.
An effort to improve this section of highway, the Sterling Highway Milepost 45-60 Project (often referred to as the Cooper Landing bypass), bears the distinction of being the source of one of the nation’s lengthiest disputes under the National Environmental Policy Act process.
Initial work for the project began in 1975 and continues today. In 2015, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT) and the Federal Highway Administration chose a controversial route, called G South, as its preferred solution. This alternative faced significant opposition from the public, local mayors, the Alaska House of Representatives, CIRI, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and many others. Concerns ranged from impacts on cultural sites and salmon habitat to environmental and safety issues.
The route preferred by CIRI and the other groups is the Juneau Creek Alternative, which would divert traffic further away from the river and reduce potential impacts.
On March 7, after nearly 40 years, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the long-awaited Cooper Landing bypass project was signed, with Juneau Creek identified as the preferred route. The public comment period runs through April 16. Once the comments are reviewed, a Record of Decision will be released.
Background: Russian River Land Act
CIRI owns two parcels of land – one 42 acres, the other 20.5 acres – near the Russian River confluence. The Juneau Creek route requires either Congressional action or a Department of Interior-initiated land exchange with CIRI. The land exchange was envisioned nearly 20 years ago with the passage of the Russian River Land Act.
“One reason the Sterling Highway Project is one of the longest-running regulatory disputes in Alaska is because the land we’re talking about is so incredibly important,” said Ben Mohr, surface estate manager for CIRI’s Land and Resources division. “People have been coming to this area to fish for millennia – we’re talking 5,000 to 7,000 years of continued use. It encompasses historic sites and archaeological grounds for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. Its importance is not just physical and archaeological, but cultural as well.”
With the goal of mitigating the impacts of this project on important cultural resources in the Squilantnu Archaeological District, which is located at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai Rivers in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Mohr has been participating in consultations under the National Historic Preservation Act. In 2015, CIRI was influential in eliminating one possible alternative that would have routed the bypass over known grave sites.
To facilitate selection of the Juneau Creek Alternative, in 2017, CIRI wrote to Secretary Ryan Zinke, the head of the U.S. Department of the Interior, to inform him of CIRI’s continued willingness to negotiate such a land exchange.
In July 2017, Governor Bill Walker and Alaska’s congressional delegation – comprised of Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Representative Don Young – sent a joint letter to the secretaries of the U.S. Agriculture, Interior and Transportation departments advocating for the Juneau Creek Alternative.
“Alaskans and many others, representing a diverse array of interests and concerns, agree that the best route for a bypass is the Juneau Creek Alternative,” the letter stated. “It will run 1.5 miles north of Kenai Lake, so it will not require any construction delays or new bridges crossing the rivers and will protect salmon and other key ecosystem drivers from most sediment and road runoff. By contrast, the more expensive G-South Alternative undermines the purpose and benefits of realignment, posing significant risks to the environment and area communities and unduly increasing the complexity and overall impact of the project.”
“CIRI is willing to fulfill its obligation under the Russian River Land Act to negotiate an exchange with the Department of the Interior, but any exchange must be in the best interest of CIRI and its shareholders,” said Jason Brune, senior director, CIRI Land and Resources. “We are pleased the Juneau Creek Alternative was identified as the preferred route, and we are excited to help this project move forward.”
A Look Ahead
In August 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service informed the U.S. Department of Transportation of its willingness to initiate a long-sought land exchange with CIRI to help spur construction of the Juneau Creek route. The decision was announced as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao was visiting Alaska. “Providing for critical infrastructure in Alaska requires a combination of funding and predictable and timely permitting decisions by the federal government,” Chao said. “This is an example where we saw a critical need to get the federal government to make a decision on an important project for Alaska.”
The next step is for the U.S. Department of the Interior to initiate the exchange.
For more information about the Cooper Landing bypass project, visit www.sterlinghighway.net.