University eyes future gravel mine in Matanuska Greenbelt, drawing ire from trail users

A coalition in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is pushing back against a University of Alaska Fairbanks project to assess some land in the Matanuska Greenbelt as a potential gravel mine.

It’s an accessible area for bikers, hikers, dog walkers and equestrians among others. So it caught locals off guard this fall when heavy equipment rumbled onto the trails south of Wasilla, next to UAF’s Matanuska Experiment Farm, to collect samples.

Officials at the cash-strapped university say they need to know how much the land is worth, and whether excavating gravel could provide a stream of revenue.

The greenbelt users are upset UAF might someday lease the 70-acre chunk of land for use as a gravel pit. A coalition of residents is trying to convince the university to preserve it instead, but any alternative would still need to make money.

“That is a conundrum for me, as we approach a solution for this particular problem,” said Amy Pettit, executive director of the Alaska Farmland Trust and spokesperson for the group, called Save the Matanuska Greenbelt.

“I don’t anticipate our group of advocates being able to solve all the university’s budget issues,” she said. “That’s not something we’re willing to take on.”

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The greenbelt land is too precious to put a gravel pit in it, Pettit said.

“Using this crown jewel property to solve even a portion of the problem would maybe bring in that little bit of revenue stream for a short amount of time, but the public loss, and the opportunity cost of destroying this property far outweighs any benefit, financial, that’s how this group feels and that’s really how I feel,” she said.

Still, UAF needs the cash. It’s part of a statewide university system grappling with a cut of $70 million over three years, after university regents entered into a compact with Gov. Mike Dunleavy agreeing to the cuts.

There are a handful of bullet points outlined in the compact, and UAF Chancellor Dan White says pointed to one in particular.

“One of the bullets is that the university will monetize its resources,” White said. “And resources being its lands, and the things in its lands, and the capital assets, to try to substitute for some of the reductions in the base funding.”

The university has expenses for things like heat and electricity that it has to pay no matter what, so cuts to that base state funding are made up for more by cutting university personnel and programs, White said.

“If the compact were not a significant reduction in our budget, would we be assessing the gravel, the resource, at this moment? And I would say we probably would not, but that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t at another time,” he said.

For now, the university is assessing how much the land is worth, and, from their perspective, that requires an analysis of the gravel samples taken this fall, White said.

At the same time, White said, the university is still open to other ideas and is working with the Save the Matanuska Greenbelt group to come up with alternatives to a gravel mine. According to both sides, that could include a local entity purchasing the land, or a long-term lease that would leave the greenbelt alone.

Pettit, the Farmland Trust director and spokesperson for the group, even threw out the idea of trail use or parking fees to generate revenue. But she still questioned the motives behind the gravel mine proposal in the first place.

“I absolutely think there’s a political angle to this,” Pettit said. “When the governor tells you that you have to reduce your budget, one of the strategies is to reduce the budget in a way that is the most painful and the most obvious to your constituents, so your constituents will help you argue for why that piece of the budget shouldn’t be cut.”

Any decision on what to do with the land is up to the University of Alaska Board of Regents. The assessment of its value might not be done before the board’s next meeting, in February, and the university has told the greenbelt group it will give them some time to come up with other proposals.

Those discussions are already happening, with a likely deadline of June, for the following Board of Regents meeting.