TANANA — Drivers can now travel Alaska’s newest road, but they may find they won’t be able to park at the end of the new 34-mile pioneer route toward Tanana.
On Monday, Tanana residents and Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials celebrated what’s being unofficially called the Road to Tanana.
The ribbon-cutting was held at the road’s terminus, a narrow section of cleared land that drops directly into the Yukon River. The community of Tanana is on the other side of the river and 6 miles downstream.
Tanana residents are divided on the road, but it received the endorsement of both the community’s city and tribal government’s before construction began in summer 2014.
At Monday’s ribbon-cutting, longtime road critic and Tanana Tribal Council Vice Chairman Curtis Sommer spoke about having mixed feelings about the road.
“Personally, I am against it. Officially, my tribe wanted the road, so officially, I am for it too,” he said
He warned of pending harm to the land.
“We have to keep a watch for the people who will come in and expect to squat on the land, expect to be able to park and take four-wheelers out of their truck and into the wilderness,” he said.
The project has had to balance the goals of reducing shipping and travel costs for Tanana residents with the environmental degradation more traffic in an area can cause. The road was built with a promise of making fuel, construction materials and other supplies less expensive for Tanana.
It is the first road in 20 years to nominally connect a community to Alaska’s road system. To that end, it has proved useful to this community of 233 people. For the past two winters, more than 400 cords of wood cleared during the road’s construction traveled over the new road and an ice bridge into Tanana.
The next months and years will determine the road’s cost to the community. In anticipation of the construction, residents expressed concerns the road will make private lands used for hunting and fishing accessible to trespassers. Much of the land along the road is owned by Tozitna Limited, Tanana’s village Native corporation. The corporation posted “no trespassing” signs along the sides of the road in advance of Monday’s opening.
The new road extends northwest for 34 miles from Manley Hot Springs, crossing state, Doyon and Tozitna land and numerous mining roads.
The $13.7 million state-funded project covered improvements to the old 14-mile Tofty Road and the construction of 20 miles of new road. It’s a small road known as a “pioneer road.” It’s built to be 15 feet wide, although it’s wider in some places.
In case the road is one day widened, the road is built on a much-wider easement and features wide bridges over streams that won’t have to be rebuilt for a wider road.
In the winter, the Alaska Department of Transportation plans to begin plowing the road after the ice has thickened enough for Tanana’s city workers to build an ice road down the river. To facilitate summer access, the city of Tanana has applied for a grant to purchase a large freight boat.
At Monday’s ribbon-cutting, Tanana City Councilman Pat Moore credited the project’s state Transportation Department planners with giving him confidence in the project.
“When (Transportation Department staff) showed up in Tanana, I was pretty negative that this would actually come to pass. DOT back in the ’70s and the ’80s, they would come in and say, ‘This is what it is. Don’t like it? We’ll leave.’ These guys worked above and beyond what I think they should have had to do,” he said. “They weren’t hard-nosed about it.”
After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a small flotilla of river boats carried visiting guests from the end of the road into Tanana. It’s about a 15-minute riverboat ride into the village. That’s much faster than the two-hour riverboat commute between Tanana and Manley Hot Springs or the five- to six-hour boat ride from road and railroad access in Nenana.
For now, river area parking on Tozitna land near the terminus is only for Tanana residents, Tozitna shareholders and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, according to a sign posted near the river access point. No representatives from Tozitna attended Monday’s ribbon-cutting, but the corporation is looking into creating a system that would allow other people to pay to park on corporation land near the river access point, said Shannon Erhart, the tribal administrator of the Tanana Tribal Council.
There are a few dozen yards of state land between the end of the Tozitna land and the riverbank, but it’s not really suitable for vehicle parking.
“The intent is that there not be a lot of non-local traffic, but we can’t say that officially because it’s a public road,” Alaska Department of Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken said in an interview after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
More extensive public Yukon River parking facilities exist at the Yukon River bridge on the Dalton Highway.
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.