Eventually, the project was divided and the
portion of Sterling Highway from Mile 37 to
Mile 45 was upgraded. That left the fifteen mile
stretch of road between Miles 45 and 60, which
is wall-to-wall motorhomes in the summer.
One major issue was how alternate
routes would affect federal wilderness land.
Approving a transportation corridor through
designated wilderness requires presidential
review and congressional approval. In 2002,
President George W. Bush signed the Russian
River Land Act, allowing Alaska Native
Corporation Cook Inlet Regional, Inc. and the
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to exchange
There’s another complication when a proposed road corridor goes through public recreational land, Luiken says. Under the Section 4(f) clause of the US DOT Act of 1966,
federal agencies are prohibited from using
land in publicly owned parks, recreation areas, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and historic properties unless they have no feasible
and prudent alternative.
In the case of the proposed Juneau access
road, for example, Luiken says the state had
identified a preferred alternative route that
would have linked Juneau directly to the road
system in Canada. But a ruling in 2005 noted
that the preferred access route would disturb a portion of the National Park Service’s
Klondike Park south of Skagway.
Instead, the state was forced to go with an
alternative route that ends with a ferry terminal at the Katzehin River.
“That’s the kind of thing that can happen
with these federal agencies,” Luiken says.
“Since we had another alternative that didn’t
include a road all the way to Skagway, we had
to select that as a preferred alternative.”
In the case of the Sterling Highway re-
alignment, however, every alternative had a
4(f) issue, he says.
“And that just complicated it that much
more,” he says. “That’s what has driven the
time it’s taken to get to a final EIS.”
Between 2002 and 2017, there have been
approximately fifty-three agency meetings on
topics such as wildlife, impacts to trails and
other recreational activities, and land issues.
An additional twenty-three meetings were held
with tribal entities, according to DOT&PF.
By 2014, five alternatives had been scoped
for the Sterling Highway project, including a
“no build” alternative. One alternative was
chosen, but discarded after the EIS process
was completed in 2015 and the hundreds of
comments were evaluated. It looked like an-
other huge delay, but the state reached out to
the congressional delegation for help. They
took another look at the analysis, collected
comments, and identified a different route,
called the Juneau Creek Alternative. The final
EIS was signed in March and, at press time,
Luiken expected a record of decision to have
been made in May, “which is fantastic.”
Under the Juneau Creek Alternative, about
ten miles of highway would be rerouted high-
er on the mountain shoulders north of Coo-
per Landing, reconnecting with the existing
road at Mile 55. 5. A new bridge spanning
Juneau Creek Canyon would be the longest
single-span bridge in Alaska. Total cost is es-
timated to be about $280 million.
“What it reflects are some of the changes
this [Trump] administration are trying to
poke through. Where all of a sudden agen-
cies are bound to a timeline,” Luiken says.
“They’ve got a set amount of time where they
have to get the process done. Before that, it
was work it out until you work it out.”
Another change is that Alaska is now one
of a handful of states that can take over as the
King Cove to Cold Bay
lead agency on environmental documents.
“Every last one of them have seen huge time
savings by being that lead agency,” he says.
“Giving the states a little more authority
and a little more power has actually proven
to be hugely efficient. States are just better-
equipped to do this because we’re just fo-
cused on our state, whereas a federal agency
has fifty states to focus on.”
If all goes to plan, the agency will have the
final design of the new route and acquired
land sometime in 2021, with construction
completed by 2025, almost fifty years after
the process began.
Politics also plays a role.
The community of King Cove, population
900, lies near the end of the Alaska Peninsula, wedged between the mountains and the
ocean. The community is accessible only by
water and air, but flights frequently are canceled due to the region’s extreme weather.
Residents have for decades asked for a road
to the nearby community of Cold Bay, which
has an all-season airport.
The only possible route, however, transects
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which
was created by Congress in 1980 under the
Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation
Act. A land swap between an Alaska Native
corporation and Izembek that would facilitate the one-lane gravel road has been turned
down repeatedly by previous federal administrations over environmental concerns. Residents didn’t give up.
Della Trumble, a vocal advocate of the road,
wrote in an editorial printed by The Wall Street
Journal, “Protecting nature isn’t an either-or
proposition. Yes, birds and bears should have
a safe home—but so should my daughter.”
In January, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke
signed off on the land swap, saying it was a
priority for President Donald Trump. Nine
environmental groups immediately sued the
US government, saying Zinke lacked author-
ity for the swap, which they said could set
a dangerous precedent for development in
other US refuges.
The US Justice Department is reviewing
DOT&PF spokeswoman Meadow Bailey
says environmental studies for the road have
not started and adds, “We do not anticipate
that the King Cove to Cold Bay Road project
will be challenging from an engineering or
Roads to Resources
Not all roads in Alaska must go through a
lengthy federal process. Alaska’s rich mineral
resources are a catalyst for development.
Without road access, they’re stranded and
unmarketable. In some cases, state and private funding, which have fewer regulations,
are the answer.
After oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay,
the oil companies needed a way to haul construction and oilfield materials to the North
Slope, and then to serve the operations after production started. The Bureau of Land
Management set aside a utility corridor to
protect the route of the trans-Alaska pipeline. The Haul Road, as it was called, followed
this corridor for 414 miles, from 73.1 Elliott
Highway near Livengood to its northern terminus in Deadhorse.
Contractors working for Alyeska Pipeline
Service Company started building the road on
April 29, 1974, and completed it five months
later. Although DOT&PF took over maintenance in 1978, it was largely restricted to
commercial traffic. In 1994, Alaska Governor
Walter Hickel opened the road, now called the
Dalton Highway, to the general public.
After a rich lode of zinc was discovered in
Northwest Alaska in 1980, the mine developer
Under the Juneau Creek Alternative, about ten miles of highway would be rerouted higher on the
mountain shoulders north of Cooper Landing, reconnecting with the existing road at Mile 55. 5.
A new bridge spanning Juneau Creek Canyon would be the longest single-span bridge in Alaska.
Total cost is estimated to be about $280 million.
In the summer tourism season, caravans of
motorhomes and SUVs run into a fifteen-mile
bottleneck on the Sterling Highway.