The mayor of Nenana and other local leaders are celebrating completion of an $18 million bridge project that will open up hundreds of thousands of acres west of town to development year-round. The leaders hope the bridge over the Nenana River will boost the area’s economy through land sales and resource development, and provide more access to hunting and fishing.
Mayor Josh Verhagen says completion of the Nenana-Totchaket Bridge marks the culmination of decades of effort to provide overland access to the area west of the Nenana River known as the Totchaket. He says it’ll provide the opportunity that both local leaders and area residents have been waiting for.
“Each of them have been wanting land access for quite a while, the city included,” Verghagen said in a July 9 interview. “The city owns some land over there.”
And so does U.S. Department of Agriculture and the State of Alaska, especially the Alaska Mental Health Trust. Other landowners include the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Toghotthele Corp., the local Native corporation. Verhagen says the bridge also will also help the private sector develop resources in the Totchaket – like Doyon, the regional Native corporation, which for years has been exploring the area for oil and gas.
“The gas and oil exploration is a huge potential,” he said. “I think that not having year-round access has definitely slowed the exploration down.”
The mayor says the bridge also will allow development other industries, including agriculture. Advocates say the Totchaket has better soils and growing conditions than the Interior’s main agricultural area to the east, around Delta Junction.
“Ag land, the state ag land, will be up for sale in 2022,” he said.
Local officials say all that development will help revive the area’s economy and provide residents with access to resources like timber and more hunting and fishing opportunities. That’s been the hope since the project was first formally proposed four decades ago by among others then-mayor Jack Coghill, who went on to serve as a state Senator and lieutenant governor. He died last year at the age of 93.
“He definitely played a big role in sharing the vision and getting the ball rolling,” Verhagen said.
In 2008, construction began on a road to the Nenana River and a bridge over a nearby slough. But seven years and $9 million later, the project ground to a halt at the riverbank. Pilings had been sunk into the riverbed, but the city had run out of money to build the bridge and the state had stopped funding the project. Finally, two years ago, the local Native association stepped-up to help finish it.
“We were just really trying to figure out how to make it happen, still, because it had stalled,” says Jessica Shaw, administrator of the Nenana Native Association.
Shaw was serving as Nenana’s interim mayor in 2018, helping the city work out its financial problems. She said in a July 13 interview that she knew the Native Association stood a better chance of getting funding for the bridge. So she got permission from the tribal council to apply for a $9 million federal grant.
“We formed a team and went after the grant,” she said, “and to our surprise, we were awarded it.”
The Native association administered the grant and oversaw construction of the 450-foot bridge, which was completed last month. It was opened to the public after a July 6th ribbon-cutting ceremony. Shaw says tribal council members agreed to seek the grant in hopes it would help both Native and non-Native members of the community thrive.
“The hope is that with future responsible development and management,” she said, “that there will be jobs for locals -- y’know, our people here.”
Shaw says a healthy local economy will provide the added benefit of helping members of the local Native community preserve their culture.