State to look at environmental issues of Denali Highway fixes

Posted: Tuesday, February 08, 2000

FAIRBANKS - The state says it will take another look at the environmental issues involved with upgrading the Denali Highway before it does any more work on the project.

The state wants to pave and otherwise upgrade the old two-lane gravel road linking Paxon with Cantwell.

But the state Department of Transportation cited an outpouring of telephone calls, letters and e-mail messages from people opposed to the paving project.

``In general, respondents have expressed a desire to minimize improvements to this scenic and recreational access route, and preserve the road's existing character,'' wrote Joseph Mazzitello, the department's regional environmental coordinator, last week.

State highway officials have contended that paving or applying a sealant to the Denali Highway and other state-maintained gravel roads would make them cheaper to maintain, reducing the cost of their upkeep by as much as one-half.

But the environmental review is warranted, Mazzitello said, because of sweeping changes in land ownership and development plans since the area first was examined in 1982.

``The new study will identify current need, develop alternatives and analyze impacts,'' he noted. ``Present issues, any controversies, and all current environmental requirements will be addressed.

``If significant environmental impacts are identified and cannot be mitigated, an Environmental Impact Statement will also be prepared.''

Ruth McHenry, a spokeswoman for the Copper Community Alliance, said the decision is a good one, but that doesn't mean the paving project is dead.

``It's good to see this in writing,'' McHenry said of the administration's acceptance that a new environmental review is needed.

``Of course, we still have a job to do when this comes up for public comment. The best thing people can do (in response to the planned environmental study) is to pose questions about the project with their letters, because those questions all have to be answered,'' she told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

John Schandelmeier, a Paxon man long opposed to the project, hopes the agency's decision to do the new environmental study signals a policy change. ``Before it was like we're going to pave it regardless of what you guys want to do,'' he said.

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