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State hosts ‘listening session’ to hear Nenana ag project concerns

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Jeff Chen/Native Movement
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More than two dozen Nenana-area community members stopped by Native Movement's blockade of the road leading into the Nenana Totchaket Agricultural Project to offer help and support for the protest. From left, Marcus Titus, Tara Colleen, and Nathan, who didn't offer his last name, stopped by on Nov. 1 to split wood and spark a fire to cook a big pot of moose soup.

Transportation Department's public meeting begins at 6 tonight at Coghill Community Civic Center in Nenana

The state Department of Transportation will hold a community meeting in Nenana tonight to hear concerns that members of the community and local tribe have raised about the state’s plans to develop a big agricultural area west of town.

State officials halted work last month on a project to improve and extend a road into the 140-thousand-acre Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Area after Native activists blocked the road to protest what they said was the state’s failure to consider their objections.

“After concerns were raised, throughout November, we did no construction work on the roadway,” says Danielle Tessen, a state Transportation Department spokesperson.

Tessen says DOT and its contractor only did some preliminary work on stockpiling materials near a bridge over the Nenana River that leads into the project site on the west side of town. She said in an interview Sunday that DOT officials want to meet with area residents to talk about their concerns that the project is being developed too quickly and without enough input from the community.

“The purpose of the meeting is to all come together and really just have a dialogue,” she said, “but also for state agencies to listen to what the community of Nenana has to say about this project.”

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Alaska Department of Natural Resources
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The 12-mile stretch of Totchaket Road that the Transportation Department was scheduled to work on and follow-on project to extend the road another 19 miles would cut through the 30,000-acre Phase One area that the state has begun developing within the 140,000-acre Nenana Totchaket Ag Project. The state began selling Phase One land with an auction of 2,000 acres last summer.

The Oct. 31-Nov. 1 blockade by activists with Alaska-based Native Movement was staged to bring attention to what they say is the state’s failure to solicit local public input and to take their concerns seriously. As explained by Native Movement Executive Director Enei Begaye in a social media post from the scene of the protest.

“The state is proposing to expand a road through Nenana traditional territories, hunting and fishing grounds,” she said, “and it’s gotten to the point now where construction is about to start and the tribe is out here blockading the road.”

Tessen says that’s why DOT scheduled what the agency calls a “listening session.” And she says because many of the concerns about the project involve areas of responsibility managed by other state agencies, representatives of the Departments of Natural Resources and the Fish and Game will participate in the meeting, which begins at 6 at the James A. Coghill Community Civic Center.

“We anticipate that the conversations will weave in and out of DOT, DNR and Fish and Game,” she said. “Because as we talk about the community and what it is what they want for this project, they really all integrated.”

DOT is overseeing a $5.8 million contract to rebuild and improve the 12-mile road leading into the Totchaket. A second phase of the project would extend the road another 19 miles westward toward the Kantishna River. Some community and tribal members say the road would run through or near ecologically sensitive areas to facilitate what they call large-scale “industrial farming” that wouldn’t improve Alaska’s food security, as the state officials claim.

“It’s really important in the community to have a continuing dialogue with state agencies as well as each other,” Tessen said, “and it’s something that we’ve heard and we’ve identified as being important.”

Tessen says DOT officials intend to conduct more public outreach efforts during the department’s work on the project. She says the agency will post a list of the questions asked during tonight’s meeting to the department’s Nenana Totchaket project web page. And she says if community members want, DOT will open future meetings up to a larger virtual audience through such online platforms as Zoom.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.