Alaska Department of Transportation image from U.S. Army Corps public notice of permit application

Contractors are preparing to begin work on repair and expansion of remote forest roads on Kupreanof Island in Southeast Alaska. The controversial $40 million project may extend the road from the village of Kake to a proposed new boat ramp north of Petersburg. Five miles of new road still  awaits approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Critics of the project want a public hearing on that permit and greater scrutiny of the plans.

State transportation officials say the Kake Access Project will improve access to fishing and hunting in the Tongass National Forest on the northern part of the island. Once it’s completed, motorists will be able to drive from Kake across the island to a public boat ramp about 12 miles north of Petersburg. 

The state Department of Transportation has already committed $15,567, 375 to a contractor, Kiewit Corporation for the first phase of the $40 million project. The international construction company has mobilized around a half dozen workers to Portage Bay and will be reconditioning existing forest roads on that part of Kupreanof Island. 

DOT’s engineering manager Joe Kemp said the contractor won’t be widening the existing gravel road..

“The only thing that they’ll do is in places that they can go out and blade the road and make it nice and flat again, they’ll do that,” Kemp said. “In places where they need to add material they will do that.” 

That work is expected to start this month and take about two weeks. They’ll also be crushing rock if the U.S. Forest Service grants a special use permit to expand three existing gravel pits on the road system.

Meanwhile the DOT still plans over five miles of new road construction in that area as well. That’s less than the 13 miles originally proposed. Kemp said that’s because the budget for that much road was more than the agency could currently afford..

“So we had to make changes and what we ended doing is utilizing more existing roads that the Forest Service has out there, instead of building new roads.” Kemp said.

Portage Bay on northern Kupreanof Island (Elizabeth Jenkins/KFSK)

The state agency is still negotiating a second work package with Kiewit that will include tree clearing and construction of new roadway. That work will also include a bridge over Twelvemile Creek and a boat ramp on the shoreline of Frederick Sound. It’s been pushed back until next year, with a springtime target for starting and completion next fall. But that new road depends on a wetlands fill permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And some residents in Petersburg and Kake are asking for a public hearing and more consultation with tribes before the federal agency grants that permit.

“There’s been absolutely no opportunity for on-the-record public input for this latest iteration of the project,” said Petersburg resident Becky Knight. She spent the Fourth of July weekend collecting 118 signatures on a petition calling for hearings and more environmental scrutiny and delivered it to the Army Corps. 

““There’s just a ton of questions that need to be answered and from our community’s standpoint I think probably the waste of money but also where did the money go?” Knight wonders.

State lawmakers approved $40 million in state funds for the project back in 2012. State Senator Bert Stedman has been one of the principle backers of the project. The Sitka Republican dismisses opposition to the Kake Access Project.

“There are groups of people that you’re never going to get to agree on any of the infrastructure projects,” Stedman said during an interview in July. “Some of them would disagree on every one of them. So from that far side of the spectrum they’re irrelevant.”

Stedman said the new road will create economic development opportunities between the two communities and make it easier to install future transmission lines to run power across the island

“So this is just part of the transportation corridors that need to be pursued,” he said. “And again that road is a very rudimentary access when it’s completed, or will be rudimentary access when it’s completed going east.”

He says he’d prefer the road extend closer to Petersburg rather than stop at a boat ramp near Twelvemile Creek.

But the petition from Petersburg is not the only organized opposition to the project. 

The federally recognized tribal government, the Organized Village of Kake has joined environmental groups trying to stop the project. Olivia Glasscock is an attorney for Earthjustice, a Juneau-based environmental law firm representing the tribe, Alaska Rainforest Defenders and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. She said the project’s design keeps changing. 

“That creates significant confusion and there’s a lack of clarity about why this project is needed or what purpose it serves, what community it would be benefitting and these substantial changes in the project and failure to keep the public updated on exactly what the plans are I think illustrates why the Corps needs to be undertaking consultation with communities that would be affected directly like Kake,” Glasscock said.

The attorneys are asking the Corps to deny the wetlands permit and say neither the Corps nor Forest Service has met obligations to consult with Kake’s tribal government about the road. Dozens of other Alaskans also wrote to the Corps seeking hearings.

The Environmental Protection Agency has also raised questions. A letter from the EPA’s regional office said it’s not clear the proposed discharge of fill for the project would comply with federal guidelines under the Clean Water Act. The state has not identified a purpose for building a boat ramp or shown that it’s opting for the least environmentally damaging alternatives for the new road and bridge, the EPA noted. 

State highway engineer Joe Kemp has read through the comments on the Corps permit application. He said it’s commonplace to have critics and you can’t please everybody.

“It’s pretty normal for projects like this,” Kemp said. “You’re not going to make everybody happy kind of thing so, I don’t think it’s a deal killer but that’s up to the Corps to make that decision.”

The U.S. Army Corps said an environmental assessment will be done for the segments of new road, bridge and boat ramp. The Corps said it’s considering the requests to hold a public hearing on the wetlands permit. But it hasn’t decided whether it will.