Cooper Landing Bypass To Encourage Cultural History: Part 1
By Jennifer Tarnacki
A much debated route for the Cooper Landing Bypass has finally been decided, ending a hotly debated saga of over 40 years. The project means big future impacts for the land, as well as new opportunities. From Kenaitze cultural artifacts to wildlife management, it’s up to creative minds from diverse organizations to find balance between preservation and progress in the sensitive Kenai watershed.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) signed a Record of Decision officially choosing the Juneau Creek Alternative, completing the final environmental impact statement for the project. The Juneau Creek option was selected over other possible routes that would have run closer to the Kenai River.
The route will run north of the Kenai River and up into the hills above Cooper Landing. According to the project’s statement, the road will affect 126 acres of Kenai Peninsula Borough Land, 90 acres of federal land, and 43 acres of state land.
The Cooper Landing bypass project has one of the longest running environmental impact statements for a transportation project in the country. One of the reasons the route was so hotly debated is the huge cultural significance of the land it travels through.
Ben Mohr, estate manager for Alaska Native Corporation Cook Inlet Region Incorporated (CIRI) explains, “People have been coming to this area to fish for millennia – we’re talking 5,000 to 7,000 years of continued use. It encompasses historic sites and archaeological grounds for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. Its importance is not just physical and archaeological, but cultural as well.”
The initial proposed route was announced in December 2015 and immediately drew controversy. The Kenai Peninsula Borough, the governments of the Kenaitze and Salamatof tribes, the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the governor, and the Alaska Congressional delegation all expressed their opposition to the proposed route, and instead favored the Juneau Creek Alternative.
The Russian River Land Group, composed of CIRI, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service, was formed to cooperate to protect and preserve the historic, cultural, and natural resources in the confluence of the Russian and Kenai Rivers. In their written public comments on the proposed route, they reported that the alternatives would have irreversible impacts to sites held by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe as sacred and spiritual, involving traditional burial sites.
The Juneau Creek route, which bypasses the most important archeological sites, is possible thanks to a land trade, in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will give the highway area to Cook Inlet Region Incorporated in exchange for CIRI land. This required many minds working together to overcome regulatory hurdles on wilderness designated public land.
In July 2017, Governor Bill Walker, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Representative Don Young sent a letter to the secretaries of the U.S. Agriculture, Interior and Transportation departments advocating for the Juneau Creek Alternative.
In 2017, to speed up the selection of the Juneau Creek Alternative and avoid dealing with the designated wilderness in part of the route, CIRI wrote to the head of the U.S. Department of the Interior Ryan Zinke to let him know of CIRI’s willingness to facilitate the land exchange. Jason Brune, senior director of CIRI Land and Resources explains, “CIRI is willing to fulfill its obligation under the Russian River Land Act to negotiate an exchange with the Department of the Interior, but any exchange must be in the best interest of CIRI and its shareholders.”
The environmental impact statement took public comment into consideration. On the project’s official website, after making it’s official selection, it states that the Juneau Creek Alternative provides the best balance between meeting the project needs and minimizing impacts to the human and natural environment. It is the alternative located farthest from the Kenai River over the greatest distance and, therefore, best protects the river.
CIRI applauds the decision. According to an article in Alaska Journal of Commerce, FHWA Alaska Administrator Garcia-Aline said the new choice was made in partnership with CIRI and the local Kenaitze tribe.
“This sets an example for the nation as to how we can move some of these projects forward and get them into construction,” Garcia-Aline said.
In the case of the Cooper Landing Bypass, it appears some new cultural connections might be an unlikely but innovative result. The partnerships between Chugach National Forest, the Kenaitze Tribe, and Student Conservation Association have come together to open up the possibility for cultural tours along with the new bypass route.
“I think it represents the best of what the Chugach National Forest Service, Kenaitze Indian Tribe, CIRI and KMTA can all bring together to inspire young Alaskans in their careers,” said Jeff Samuels, Director for the Alaska Student Conservation Association.
Read more about new cultural offerings in part two.