Tanana Road opens

Alaska has a new road, connecting Tanana on the Yukon river. It is the first road to connect a community to the system built by the state in more than 20 years.

Listen now

Engineers, legislators and Native corporation executives visit the biggest bridge on the new road to Tanana. (Photo by Robyne, KUAC - Fairbanks)
Engineers, legislators and Native corporation executives visit the biggest bridge on the new road to Tanana. (Photo by Robyne, KUAC – Fairbanks)

The Department of Transportation held a ceremony last week to officially open the new road. It cost about 14 million dollars, which is comparatively cheap next to most Alaska road projects. It promises to reduce freight and fuel costs to the village, but is also worrying locals about negative impacts.  KUAC’s reporter Robyne traveled the one-lane road with engineers who built it, and has this report.

You can’t drive very fast on the 16-foot-wide gravel and dirt strip. It is what engineers call a “Pioneer Road,” which is sort of a minimum standard to be called a road at all. Jonathan Hutchinson is a DOT engineer who designed the road.

“It’s a 50-mile segment of road from Manley Hot Springs all the way to the Yukon River,” Hutchinson said. “Within that 50 miles, you’re basically in the middle of nowhere. There’s no services, no gas stations. There’s no lodges to pull off in. Be prepared. Bring survival gear.”

It now takes about six hours to drive from Fairbanks to Tanana. Well almost to Tanana. The new road ends on the Yukon riverbank about six miles upstream of the village.

Right now, people get from the end of the road to the village in boats, or in winter across the ice.

Mike Ashton said he’s carefully drilled and measured the Yukon River ice for the last three years and built an ice road to handle the weight.

If I’ve got 4 feet, 5 inches of ice, I’ve got 50 inches of ice. I can carry about 119,000 pounds, roughly,” Ashton said. “I double the safety margin. So if it says I can carry 20,000 pounds I only put 10,000 pounds on there.”

The riverbank is where DOT and village officials held a ribbon-cutting. Kids were let out of school to attend, and they performed a new song about the road.

On the riverbank where they dance there are signs that say “Tozitna Land” and “No Trespassing.”

Curtis Sommer is with the Tanana Tribal Council.

“To me, this highway can go both ways,” Sommer said. Personally I’m against it. Officially my tribe wanted the road so officially I’m for it too.”

And Sommer’s feelings of support and doubt are shared by many. Jeff Weltzin is the city manager for Tanana.

“City passed a resolution in support of the road and the tribe did also after two years of community discussion,” Weltzin said. “There was concern that the road may put extra harvest pressure on moose and other game. The community decided that it would help lower peoples’ cost of living and the road was an important part of that.”

Department of Transportation designers came to the village several times to meet the community. The community picked the route. They arranged for the road to go through land that to non-Natives is private property. For some miles the road crosses Doyon Corporation land, and the last 12 miles goes through land held by Tozitna – the Native corporation for Tanana.

Shannon Earhart is the executive director for the Tanana Tribal Council. She says prices for heating fuel, firewood, and gasoline may change, along with other freight.

“I think the biggest impact will be on families that do haul their own stuff like right now if you buy a bed you’re limited to a full sized bed that can be flown in,” Earhart said. “So you have to wait for a barge or if you’re really ingenious and want to use a snowmachine. So this will make it a lot easier because if the road comes out, it’s only 6-10 minutes from Tanana.”

Dorothy Schokley is president of Bean Ridge, the Native corporation of Manley – now just 50 road miles away. She’s happy she’s now only two hours away from family in Tanana but fears the road will invite hunters to trespass.

“We are going to hire some security patrols and they’re going to patrol the road to help protect our lands and our resources,” Schokley said.

The new road doesn’t yet have a name. This connection from Manley to the riverbank is considered Phase One. Phase two – the six miles on the other side of the river — has an indefinite future, depending on state funding.