GALENA - Representatives from nearly every village from Manley to Unalakleet filled Galena's community hall last week to discuss a Yukon River highway to link Interior villages.
The meeting was organized with the Tanana Chiefs Conference after villages began to express changing views on rural roads.
"We would hear things like: 'We never wanted to be connected by road, but our village is shrinking, fuel costs are so high, air fares are making it impossible for us to fly. Why don't you look at building a road back to Fairbanks?' " said Mike McKinnon of the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The state had been planning a highway route through the upper Koyukuk and Kobuk valleys on the south edge of the Brooks Range to connect the region's rich mineral deposits with the road system, McKinnon said. After villages along the route objected to that idea, the state began to focus on discussions with communities along the Yukon River.
The result was several proposals for roads linking Interior villages that eventually would form a Yukon River Highway connecting Unalakleet on the Bering Sea with the Elliott Highway near Manley Hot Springs.
A proposed second phase of construction would create a link between the Seward Peninsula road system and Unalakleet, making it possible to drive from Fairbanks to Nome.
Most of the road is unlikely to be built any time soon, McKinnon said. But proponents see the present as an ideal time to take advantage of Alaska seniority in Congress and an incoming state administration eager to build roads and develop rural resources.
"We have to advance with the world," Galena elder Sidney Huntington told those at the meeting. "We can't just sit back in the fish camp like we did at one time and wait for somebody to give us a handout check to make next month's rent."
Enthusiasm about the idea was countered by an equal amount of trepidation.
"I do want that connectivity between my own village and the outside world, but I know it's going to come at a cost," said TCC President Buddy Brown, who is from Huslia.
"We've got some of the best moose-hunting country in the world on the Koyukuk River. To have that opened up with roads is something that's really going to impact the culture of Huslia, a culture that's totally dependent on moose right now," Brown said.
State Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, who represents the district, attended both days of the meeting and shared her concerns about the costs.
"Where is the funding going to come from?" Lincoln asked the crowded room. "Are you going to have to give up education and safety dollars or other funds? We talk about filling a deficit, but where is that coming from? I fear it is going to continue coming from our villages."
The group spent several hours discussing the pros and cons of the road, mulling over issues ranging from ownership to controlled access and local hire. A consensus was reached that comprehensive feasibility and impact studies should be done.
Brown volunteered the Tanana Chiefs to spearhead the effort by coordinating with the villages and the state. TCC's Larry Bredeman said the organization will try to secure a grant for the highway study by this spring in the hopes of reaching a decision on whether to move ahead with the project as early as next summer.
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