Marine Highway cuts could mean trouble for aspiring Susitna Valley ranchers

Kennicott at Hubbard Glacier. (Photo by Geraldine Young, Alaska DOT&PF)

The potential for budget cuts at the state level has spurred many conversations about impacts to Alaskans. In the Northern Susitna Valley, things like the Alaska Marine Highway System don’t often come high on the priority list, but for one family, cuts to the state’s ferry system could have a significant impact on their new business. 

In many of Alaska’s coastal communities, the Marine Highway System is a critical resource. Alaska Department of Transportation Public Information Officer Aurah Landau says its impacts go beyond the communities it directly serves.

“It’s an essential piece of commerce, not only for coastal communities…but also throughout Southcentral and the Interior as well,” Landau said.

That commerce comes from tourism, moving of goods, and, for at least one Northern Susitna Valley family, transporting livestock.

“No one’s ever bought this breed cattle up from the Lower 48,” Dan McCluskey said. He and his wife, Tina, are planning on starting a ranch with a breed of cattle known as Beefmaster. The breed has never been to Alaska, and has to make the trip up from the Lower 48.

“And so we’ll need to go back every couple years for replacement bowl so that we’re not interbreeding as we keep heifers back through the years, so the fairies going to be real important even in the future,” McCluskey said.

The McCluskeys plan to use the Marine Highway System to make the last leg of the trip back home in September, but budget cuts may make that difficult.

“I found out recently that there’s not enough money to run in September and they’re thinking that if they can’t get the funding, we may have to try to run in August,” Dan McCluskey said.

As the Alaska Legislature continues to work out a budget, there is still some uncertainty. While it looks likely that the ferry system will take significant cuts no matter the outcome, Aurah Landau says, if things stay as they are in the legislature, that there will be ferry service this winter.

“Well, the Alaska Marine Highway System won’t know final budget numbers until the budget process is complete,” Landau said. “The funding that came out of the conference committee provides for ferry service through the winter. The Marine Highway System is analyzing the best use of funding in order to provide the most possible service to the most communities.”

What that service looks like, and when and where it operates, is yet to be determined. Landau says there will be a draft schedule published for public comment this summer.

So, if the ferry from Washington isn’t available in September, what option would that leave the McCluskeys? Dan says, while the Alaska-Canada Highway, or Alcan, is an option, it’s far from ideal.

“That’s a lot of jostling around. For anybody that’s taken the Alcan, they know,” Dan said.

In addition to the road itself, Dan says going through Canada has more regulatory hurdles to deal with as well.

“Canada has a lot more regulations you have to get more blood work done and certification and innoculations,” Dan said. “And and I hear that they put a seal on your trailer when you cross the border, and you can’t open the trailer at all for the whole trip and there’s a 24 hour layover halfway through to rest them. So that makes it a little challenging also.”

On the ferry, Dan says he would be able to be with the calves multiple times per day to feed and care for them, and the trip would likely be a lot smoother than the often bumpy ride up the Alcan.

Taking the trip earlier than September would mean pushing forward an already accelerated weaning schedule for the calves, an option Dan is not excited about.

“I’m thinking that’s not a good idea,” Dan said. “Calves don’t trailer really well already. And boy, we’re really hoping to get this going.”

Bringing the calves up earlier or taking the Alaska Highway could mean they don’t survive the trip, jeopardizing the thousand dollar per head investment. Dan says the best option would be that the Marine Highway System receives enough funding in Juneau to make their trip in September.

That funding decision is still in the air. While the legislature’s conference committee has put together a budget number for the ferry system, the overall budget is still in the works, and is subject to the governor’s veto. While the process is finalized, all the McCluskeys can do is hope