An airport in the northern Susitna Valley near Denali State Park would ruin the wild area thousands of visitors venture to Alaska each year to see, some Valley residents say.
A suggested public airport located at either Mile 121 or 131 Parks Highway with a 6,000-foot gravel runway generated a charged response from a range of people, from state parks supporters to northern Valley residents, when borough contractors unveiled an aviation study last week.
"This is the first time I've heard of plans to put an airstrip at Mile 131," said former Mat-Su Parks Citizens Advisory Board member Dan Elliot. "This airstrip is right at the edge of the state park."
Planes taking off and landing at the strip would interfere with the majestic views of Mount McKinley and the surrounding wilderness, Elliot said. The Mat-Su State Parks advisory board, chaired by Mary Anderson of Wasilla, passed a resolution opposing the Mile 131 airport site.
A 6,000-foot runway would be long enough to accommodate business jets and could destroy the peace and quiet of three subdivisions in the area, said Randy Crosby, a former pilot and aircraft mechanic who lives at Mile 128 year-round.
"The location is primarily my concern -- they're putting the airport right in the wild area people are coming up to see. It would be a detriment to its own purpose," Crosby said.
As part of a recent Regional Aviation System planning effort, financed by the Federal Aviation Administration, the state and the borough, contractor Dowl Engineers looked for a new place to build a public airport in the Valley.
It suggested a new floatplane facility near either Goose Bay airport, Big Lake or on Sevenmile Lake, north of Point MacKenzie Road.
It will be up to the borough Planning Commission and Assembly to decide where the facility should go, if borough lawmakers decide to move ahead with the project.
The borough does not currently have money for construction of a floatplane facility, estimated to cost $27 million to $37 million, depending on the location.
Dowl project manager Tom Middendorf said while engineers worked on the study they realized the borough might need another public airport north of Trapper Creek in the next 20 years, the time frame they were tasked with forecasting.
"We saw it as a potential growth area and included it," Middendorf said.
Middendorf and Brad Sworts, a borough transportation planner, said no commercial interests or big tour operators have asked for an airport in the area.
The potential for growth comes from state and National Parks Service plans to build a South Denali Visitors Center in the state park.
National Parks Service studies estimate annual traffic to South Denali will reach 250,000-350,000 visitors within 20 years.
The demand for more day-trips and tours south of Denali National Park is likely to increase, Dowl engineers estimate. An airport near the facility could provide another avenue for visitors.
Talkeetna resident Brian Okonek asks why a $25 million airport should be built for a four-month tourist season.
"I think it is good to plan for the future," Okonek said. "There will need to be another airport in that area, since Talkeetna is the only state airport. There needs to be another, but it needs to be in a central location."
A resident of the area since 1977, Okonek, 51, has guided tours across the Denali lowlands and even some of the highlands while he and his wife operated Denali Expeditions.
They sold the business in 2000, but Okonek said his family still has a cabin in the area and tries to keep up with all the various planning efforts going on in the area. He said he doesn't want to see the area compromised from overuse.
"I think it's adding too many layers of development. The south side of Denali is truly an incredible resource," Okonek said. "You can't just keep adding layer after layer after layer of actives onto it and keep it a destination."
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