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Activists blockade road leading to Nenana-area agricultural project

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Jeff Chen/Native Movement
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Native Movement activists and others participating in the two-blockade included, from left: Nenana Native Association First Chief Caroline Ketzler, Enei Begaye, Deloole'aanh Erickson and Lindsey Maillard. The activists say the state has failed to adequately consult with local tribal and community members. They also say the tribe owns the bridge that spans the Nenana River because it contributed $9.1 million in federal grant money to the City of Nenana in 2018 to complete construction of the $18 million structure.

Activist: ‘The state is proposing to expand a road through Nenana traditional territory, hunting and fishing grounds’

Activists blocked a road leading into the Nenana Totchaket Agricultural Project for two days earlier this week. Members of Alaska-based Native Movement set up the blockade after work began on a road leading into the ag project, located just west of Nenana. The activists want state officials to reconsider their plans for both the road and ag project.

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Facebook/screenshot
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Native Movement Executive Director Enei Begaye reports from the blockade in a video she posted to Facebook on Monday.

Fairbanks Native-rights advocate Enei Begaye shared an on-scene report of the blockade on Facebook soon after protesters set it up Monday morning at the entrance to a bridge over the Nenana River that leads into a big agricultural project on the other side.

“The state is proposing to expand a road through Nenana traditional territory, 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."

Begaye is executive director of Native Movement, an Alaska-based nonprofit that promotes social justice and sustainability through indigenous environmental practices. Members of the organization and their local allies say the state hasn’t fully consulted with local tribal and community members. And they say it’s moving too quickly to develop the 140,000-acre Nenana Totchaket Agricultural Project.

So they blocked the road leading into the ag project, just as the contractor apparently was about to begin work.

State officials say they've been planning to develop the ag land for about 40 years and have held several public meetings during that time. And they say it's now time to move ahead on the project, which they say will improve Alaska's food security. The state Department of Natural Resources auctioned the first 2,000 acres of ag land this summer, and it's planning a second sale within the next couple of years.

But the land sale sparked a backlash by local tribal and community members who say the state's approach to developing the ag project is a form of "industrialized farming" that will deplete the land and disrupt its ecology. They say the state should include traditional farming practices and uses for the land that don't have such a large environmental footprint.

“The tribe asked Native Movement to organize and physically blockade the bridge before any equipment could be moved across to the road,” says Lindsey Maillard, an environmental justice coordinator with Native Movement. She and fellow members of the group and others from the Nenana Native Association and Village Council, participated the blockade, along with members of the community.

Maillard said they wanted to prevent construction equipment from entering the ag project. But local residents were allowed to trap, cut firewood and other traditional uses.

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Jeff Chen/Native Movement
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Blackade activists say more than two dozen members of the community stopped by to offer help and support for the protest. From left, Marcus Titus, Tara Colleen and Nathan, who didn't give his last name, stopped by Tuesday to split some wood and start a fire to cook up a big pot of moose stew.

“Anyone could go through, but we were just not wanting the equipment to make it to the other side,” she said.

State Transportation Department spokesperson Danielle Tessen says that’s not what the workers were doing.

“Our construction team was not on-site,” she said, “meaning, we weren’t crossing the bridge.”

Tessen says the activity the protesters saw was preparation for beginning work on the project by Brice, the Anchorage-based contractor that was awarded the $5.8 million contract to improve the 12-mile road into the Totchaket. A second phase of the project would extend the road another 19 miles to the Kantishna River

“Crews are mobilizing equipment,” she said, “and we’re working around the construction site at our material sites. Which is what we would do at the start of any construction project.”

Tessen says DOT and contractor representatives decided Tuesday to delay moving ahead on the road project after meeting with local residents and tribal members to talk about their concerns.

“We’ve been taking time to really reflect on that conversation and that learning session that we had,” she said. “And we will be hosting another listening session that will be open to the public.”

Tessen says the meeting will be held later this month, and DOT’s still working on when and where it’ll happen. Maillard says Native Movement would welcome more talks, and she assumes local tribal officials would be, too. But Nenana Native Association First Chief Carolyn Ketzler wasn’t available Thursday to comment.

Tessen says officials with other state agencies involved in the project also may be invited. That likely would include the Department of Natural Resources, which is overseeing the ag project. But DNR officials didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday.

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.