Corri A. Feige

GUEST COMMENTARY: Airlift frees old bus from tragic past, offers positive future

For decades, the 1940s-era city bus abandoned on a remote trail 25 miles west of Healy has served variously as shelter, symbol, shrine, siren song, and even a place of death. June 18 marked the start of a new chapter in the life of Bus 142. On June 18, at the request of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, a Alaska Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter removed the so-called “Into the Wild” bus from the Stampede Trail so it could be transferred to safe, secure storage while DNR considers the next step in the story of Alaska’s most famous bus. After its service with the Fairbanks City Transit System ended in the 1950s, the Yutan Construction Co. bought the now-famous bus to house employees during construction of a pioneer road between Lignite and Stampede. It was abandoned upon completion of the road in 1961, and began quietly rusting away in a small clearing on the state-owned Stampede Trail, west of the Parks Highway. Used by hunters and hikers as an occasional emergency shelter, the bus became famous after Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book “Into the Wild” and a 2007 movie of the book popularized the story of 24-year-old wanderer Chris McCandless, who, sadly, died there alone in 1992 after a 114-day stay which he characterized in a journal as an escape from the constraints of civilization. Since McCandless’ death, increasing numbers of travelers have tried literally to retrace McCandless’ steps, hiking a rugged trail in often-harsh weather and fording the Teklanika and Savage rivers to reach the bus site. While many of them have had satisfying, if uneventful, experiences, too many became lost or injured, or required rescue. Tragically, since 2010 two women have drowned during such trips, fueling public calls to reduce or eliminate the hazards. As the bus is a long-term abandoned vehicle present on state land managed by DNR, it is technically state property, and legally the responsibility of my department. However, determining what to do with the bus has required the balancing of interests. On the one hand, Alaska welcomes residents and visitors for whom the real challenges and risks of recreating in our wild areas heighten their enjoyment. On the other hand, this bus had been attracting far too many visitors unprepared for the rigors of the challenge. They were risking harm to themselves or others, requiring search and rescue teams to put themselves in harm’s way, consuming limited public resources, and in some cases losing their lives. Some voices have called for eliminating the attraction entirely by destroying the bus. Others wanted to make access safer by building bridges or improving trails. Some wanted to capitalize on its mystique, moving it to the road system as a tourist attraction. Still others wanted to see it preserved as a shrine to the kind of rugged individualism that shuns civilization’s strictures. In the end, DNR’s decision to move the bus was based on a few essential factors. First, it had become an attractive nuisance posing unacceptable risk to visitors too often unprepared for the rigors of the journey. Second, the Alaska Army National Guard graciously agreed to remove it as a way to practice its skills at rapid air-mobile movement of equipment under wilderness conditions. Third, the bus was imposing financial burdens on the Denali Borough, Alaska State Troopers, DNR and other agencies. Finally, and most importantly, we simply could not ignore that the bus was a factor in more, and more frequent, injuries, accidents and deaths. Recognizing news about the bus might reopen old wounds in the families of those who had died — and balancing that with a need to preserve the safety and integrity of the operation — as soon as the bus was on the move, I personally reached out and spoke with a member of the McCandless family to share the news, and to express my hope this action might save others from the kind of pain their families have experienced. Where time differences would have meant disturbing late-night phone calls to other survivors, my staff provided advance notice by email, and invitations to call back when convenient. As Bus 142 will likely remain a potent symbol and attractive artifact, DNR plans to keep it safe in secure storage while considering options for its long-term future, in Alaska. While we will continue to consider public input, it is my strong intent to prevent the bus and its legacy from being exploited for publicity, profiteering or any other disrespectful use. Decisions on its final disposition will reflect our responsibility for the health, safety and well-being of our residents, our visitors, and our land and resources. Bus 142 has had a long and fascinating past. By respectfully, efficiently and safely moving it, we are preserving the opportunity for this piece of history to have a long-term future as well; not only in Alaska, but also in the hearts, minds and memories of adventurers and seekers around the world. ^ Corri A. Feige is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

GUEST COMMENTARY: A stable economic future follows the Ambler Road

As COVID-19 continues to create global economic hardship, it is reassuring to see steady progress on a project offering immediate and long-term benefits to Alaska’s economy. The Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, or Ambler road, would help bring jobs and new revenues for the Northwest Arctic Borough and the State by lowering the cost to explore, build and operate future mines in the area. We have known of the Ambler district’s vast copper and base metal deposits since the 1950s. Congress recognized the value of developing them, including specific guarantees in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, for a road to link them with the Dalton Highway. In 2009, state transportation planners identified an initial route, and in 2013 the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority took over as project lead, hoping to replicate its success with the DeLong Mountain Transportation System, which provides access to Northwest Alaska’s Red Dog mine. One of the world’s largest zinc mines, Red Dog has contributed significant revenues to the Northwest Arctic Borough and NANA Regional Corp., and provided family-wage jobs and other opportunities to rural Alaskans since 1989. The Ambler Road proposal is for a 211-mile gravel industrial road branching west from the Dalton Highway near Prospect Creek, crossing state, federal, and Native corporation land, ending in the Ambler Mining District. Access would be restricted to industrial and commercial uses. While it would be closed to the general public, the road would allow deliveries of commercial goods to local communities and access for emergency responders. Since first submitting applications in 2015, AIDEA has progressed this project through the extensive federal environmental review and permitting process. Over the past five years, federal agencies developed economic and environmental analyses, evaluated alternatives, and solicited and incorporated extensive public input. The draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, was published Aug. 23, 2019, the final EIS on March 27, and the final record of decision is due in mid-May. These studies clearly describe the project’s benefit to Alaska’s economy: 365 jobs and from $280 million to $380 million in road construction spending, plus 80 year-round road maintenance jobs. Development of the Ambler district’s four major deposits would bring 2,777 direct jobs carrying a $286 million annual payroll, plus 2,034 indirect jobs carrying $108 million in payroll. AIDEA would finance road construction and maintenance by issuing bonds, earning back between $988 million and $1.1 billion – a positive return on investment for Alaskans. The Ambler Road would greatly improve the possibility of developing known deposits of copper and other minerals in the Arctic and Bornite prospects and would support exploration for and discovery of new deposits. Deposits in the Ambler District hold key strategic minerals that are increasingly important to Alaska and the nation. Without the Ambler road, those minerals would remain stranded in the ground. Like most Alaska development projects, the road inspires different opinions. Opponents claim a road would decimate caribou; that mines would poison water; that access would destroy Native culture; or that progress would drive out wilderness. Supporters note building roads brings jobs and a lower cost of living that benefits all area residents; mines could offer steady jobs and paychecks that compliment subsistence activities and allow local residents to stay in their communities; caribou thrive near existing construction and industrial projects; and millions of acres of nearby wilderness will remain untouched. AIDEA has carefully followed the process and requirements laid out in ANILCA, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and other applicable federal laws. On the state side, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Project Management and Permitting has closely coordinated with federal and state agencies and other authorities to ensure the process meets legal, procedural and practical standards and milestones. Following completion of the federal process, DNR will work with other state agencies to evaluate the proposed Ambler road under Alaska’s robust regulatory programs. Through this process, we will again hear from Alaskans as the agencies work to balance the possible impacts and benefits of the project. Advancing the Ambler road project would fulfil both the state’s constitutional responsibility to develop Alaska’s economy, and AIDEA’s mission to promote, develop and advance economic growth and diversification in the state by providing financing and investment options. I encourage all Alaskans interested in economic growth and diversification for our state to join me in supporting the continued progress on this important development project. Corri A. Feige is Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources

GUEST COMMENTARY: This land is your land

Woodie Guthrie didn’t mention Alaska by name in “This Land is Your Land,” his classic folk song celebrating the beauty and bounty of America, but he might as well have. We at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources share Guthrie’s belief that “this land was made for you and me.” That’s why I’m proud to share some of the ways we’re using our land and resources to benefit both Alaskans and visitors alike. Alaska is blessed with the largest system of state parks in the nation. Our Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation manages 3.4 million acres and 156 state park units across the state. We welcome guests at 90 campgrounds and more than 80 public-use cabins, where folks can spend days and nights enjoying beautiful scenery and unmatched recreational opportunities for a nominal fee. It takes significant work to maintain and improve our parks, campgrounds, trails, parking areas and historic sites. Recent projects include repairing earthquake damage at Eagle River Campground and Eagle Rock Boat Launch, fixing winter storm damage at Anchor River and Deep Creek, improving trailheads in the Chena River Special Recreational Area, mitigating the impacts from spruce beetle damage at multiple sites, and installing a new foot bridge over Penguin Creek in Chugach State Park. Alaska’s selection of statehood lands on the oil-rich North Slope demonstrated we could keep our promise to use our resources to be self-sufficient. That effort to select lands important to Alaska’s future continues. Our Division of Mining, Land, and Water, or DMLV, is working cooperatively with federal agencies, Native corporations and other landowners to refine our remaining land selections so Alaska can receive the remaining 5.3 million acres of our 105.8 million acre statehood land entitlement. DMLW also defends Alaska’s claim to navigable waterways, and to public access to federal land across historic RS 2477 trails. And we’re pushing hard to correct federal errors in setting the western border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which would open more Alaska land for the oil development that generates oil royalties for state services and Permanent Fund dividends for citizens. Our respectful, but persistent requests that federal authorities remove 1970s-era Public Land Orders, or PLOs, blocking multiple uses and state control of state land found success this summer when the Bureau of Land Management lifted two PLOs on 1.3 million acres in Interior and Southcentral Alaska. But there’s more work to be done. For example, PLO 5150 was established in 1972 to guarantee federal access along most of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Pipeline construction ended in 1977, but PLO 5150 remains, blocking development along this critical infrastructure corridor. Most importantly, Alaskans deserve the chance to own a piece of the land they love. DNR manages several successful programs that advance Governor Michael J. Dunleavy’s goal of putting Alaska lands into Alaskan hands. Our annual auction giving Alaskans first crack at bidding on state land with low-interest financing and 25 percent veterans discount has been such a success the governor added a fall sale. Properties unsold after Oct. 30 will join over 118 parcels currently available to Alaskans over the counter. (See dnr.alaska.gov/mlw/landsales) DNR’s popular Remote Recreational Cabin Site staking program lets qualified Alaskans submit bids for unimproved, remote land. DNR will also open bids Oct. 30 for three agricultural land tracts to help Alaskans grow the farming sector, diversify the economy and help enhance food security. DNR’s mission also doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. Ocean-ranching is a growing Alaska industry. DNR has 63 active leases of state-owned waters to grow oysters, mussels and geoducks, plus kelp, seaweed other aquatic resources. Another 22 leases are pending. Growing interest in mariculture has the Legislature considering a bill to help DNR speed lease renewals, build industry confidence and nurture growth in this new brand of resource development. Alaskans are rightly proud to live in a state where developing resources on the people’s land directly benefits the people. I am proud to lead Department of Natural Resources in working to deliver those benefits to Alaskans today, and those to come. I think Woody would be proud, too. ^ Corri A. Feige is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
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