Tribe protests effort to develop agricultural project in wilderness west of Nenana


Opposition to an Alaska project designed to unlock a new agriculture district in a vast wilderness area west of Nenana escalated earlier this week when an Alaska Native tribe blockaded a public-use bridge for two days to keep construction crews out.

The tribe, the Nenana Native Association, has since ended the blockade, but it’s still raising objections to the state’s effort to open more than 140,000 acres to farming under the state’s Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project, a potential farming district that the state and community of Nenana have pursued for decades.

The tribe asserts that it owns the new and sparingly used 450-foot bridge over the Nenana River, and can limit access to the area. That assertion of ownership is disputed by the mayor in the town of 400, who says Nenana owns the bridge and public right-of-way.

State officials say they’re trying to sort out who owns the bridge.

The bridge was completed in 2020 with $9 million in federal funding secured by the tribe, after the city of Nenana launched construction on the project with $6 million of state support. The bridge is the gateway to an area scarred by fire in 2009, and where Alaska Natives say they have hunted, fished and trapped for generations. It’s also the access point to the new agriculture district, and construction crews this week were expected to begin working on improvements to the existing frontier road.

Caroline Ketzler, first chief of the Nenana Native Association, said Tuesday the state had not communicated properly about the project with the tribe, which she believes could devastate wildlife habitat in an area that supports moose, fish and game for trapping.

“It deals directly with our food security as a village, that’s where we do a lot of hunting and gathering and we always have,” Ketzler said. “We want to do as much as possible to keep that land and that fragile ecosystem still functioning.”

Nenana Mayor Joshua Verhagen said the city supports the state’s road and agricultural project because it could lead to more food security for the state as farmers grow crops and livestock. He said the tribe had historically supported the project, but has changed its position over the last year or so.

“I’m disappointed that the tribe approached it this way instead of sitting down and working it through,” he said of the blockade.

A large agricultural project

The state this year has taken key steps to launch the agricultural project, the largest effort of its kind in Alaska in decades.

This summer, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources offered the first 2,000 acres for sale to potential farmers, on land off an existing 12-mile frontier road built about a decade ago for an unsuccessful oil and gas exploration project. The state plans to extend the frontier road by 19 miles to support the agricultural project.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Workforce Development hired contractor Brice Inc. to begin upgrading the frontier road starting this month, a step that could lead to a future phase involving the road extension. The road projects could potentially cost $30 million overall, plans show.

The tribe started the blockade on Monday after the state planned to move ahead with its road upgrade plans, despite opposition from the tribe, Ketzler said.

Nenana bridge

The tribe enlisted Native Movement, an Indigenous advocacy group, to help with the protest. Parked vehicles blocked access, including one draped with a “No road, no consent” banner. A small group of protesters gathered in the cold around a fire and moose soup.

The idea was to block only road construction crews that were expected to start work this week, but none tried to travel through during the protest, organizers said.

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In the end, every motorist was allowed to pass, said Lindsey Maillard, a tribal member and protestor with Native Movement on Tuesday. A small number of people were heading out to the Totchaket area to set up trap lines or gather wood, she said.

“We’re here in a respectful way,” said Enei Begaye, executive director of Native Movement, in a message posted on Facebook on Monday. “We’re not here for any violence, we’re not here to get into any altercations. We’re here to ensure that traditional territory, hunting and fishing grounds, are protected, that this road isn’t constructed into these sensitive areas.”

Tribe maintains opposition

The protest ended Tuesday night after officials with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities met with the tribe in Nenana in what First Chief Ketzler described as a productive meeting that was “inviting and respectful.”

“They’ll do their due diligence to keep everyone informed,” she said of the state.

Danielle Tessen, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, said the state recognizes that the protest grew out of a feeling that some voices aren’t being heard.

She said the meeting participants discussed forming a team of officials with the state, the road contractor, and the tribe to improve communication, with other interested parties welcome to join. She said the Totchaket project is big and unique, and requires extra communication.

“We acknowledge that there’s a better way to create a stronger team where we can communicate better,” she said on Tuesday.

She said the state in September “phased the project” to move ahead with the existing road improvements this fall, and it will continue to meet with the public about the proposed road extension.

Verhagen, the mayor, says the city transferred temporary site control of the bridge to the tribe during construction. But the city still maintained ownership, he said.

Ketzler says the tribe owns the bridge and never transferred it to the city.

“The tribe stepped up and secured federal funding and we own the bridge under Federal Highway Administration requirements,” she said.

Tessen said the state is looking into the bridge ownership question.

Ketzler on Tuesday night said the tribe is not pulling its opposition to the road extension at this point.

She acknowledged that the tribe’s views have changed about the project. It has grown opposed to further development in the Totchaket area after the bridge and road have brought additional hunting pressure to wildlife such as moose and bear.

“It’s hard to find a moose out there now,” she said.

Corporation also opposes road project

Like the tribe, Toghotthele Corp., the Alaska Native village corporation in Nenana, historically supported the project.

In August, the corporation’s board voted to oppose the new road, though it was a divided decision, said Eva Burk, the corporation’s vice chair and a tribal member.

She said the state is rushing ahead with the projects without doing due diligence on things like the potential impacts to fish, wildlife, and cultural resources such as grave sites in the area.

She said the Minto Flats South fire in 2009 changed the landscape, making it better for supporting moose with new browse to eat, rather than hosting a new agricultural district in Alaska.

She said a recent survey to determine the quality of the soil had not been completed before the land sale was held starting in June, another misstep by the state.

[Alaska’s push to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge backfired. Here’s how.]

“Why would you sell something before you know how suitable it is for agriculture?” said Burk, also an advisory board member for Native Movement.

Tim Shilling, a competitive land sales manager with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said the project has been contemplated since the 1970s. Since then, there have been many studies and reports about the project, he said. Those reports include soil surveys.

The agency’s project page has pointed to a soil survey completed in 1980. But the Natural Resources Conservation Council, a federal agency, recently completed an updated report from 2020 and 2022 investigations of much of the farmland. It plans to publish that online Friday, an official with the agency said.

Land buyers included Native Movement

Shilling said that all 27 parcels offered in the sale were sold, raising just over $1 million for the state, if the sales are finalized pending a review of plans for farming.

A nonprofit formed by Burk and Native Movement snatched up two parcels totaling 42 acres in the land sale, after raising money. Burk said the purchase was not out of support for the project, but to assure that there will be some local ownership in farming endeavors in the Totchaket area.

“We are being forced into being farmers,” she said.

Burk said the nonprofit plans to conduct a sustainable farming demonstration project that includes using salmon waste for fertilizer to grow crops like carrots, potatoes and beets.

She said she worries that other farms will use chemical fertilizers that could damage the area and eventually reach the Tanana River where the land drains, hurting salmon runs there.

“I’d hate to see this land pumped full of chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds,” she said.

Tarn Coffey, a Nenana resident, said he supports the agricultural project and purchased five parcels in the sale. He hopes to start clearing trees that died from the fire next spring, as well as the young trees that are growing up.

He plans to grow pumpkins and sweet corn for sale in Alaska, which he says he’s grown in small amounts on his land near Nenana. He wants the opportunity to expand his farming and provide locally grown food in Alaska to counter the huge amount of imported food.

He said he thinks the tribe’s protest on the bridge was a step too far.

“This opens this land up for all Alaskans to use, and that is what disturbs me the most that they blockaded the bridge,” he said.

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