Bill would let Fairbanks investor build railroad to Denali

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A bill moving through the Legislature would help Fairbanks entrepreneur Joseph Fields build a passenger railroad from Healy to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park and Preserve.

The bill would transfer up to 3,500 acres of state land adjacent to the park to the Denali Borough.

The transfer would provide a corridor for Field's company, Kantishna Holdings Inc., to construct the first 30 miles of the rail line to the eastern edge of the park. To continue the remaining 55 miles to Wonder Lake, the company would need an easement from the National Park Service.

The bill, HB 244, passed in the House Friday. It is sponsored by Jeannette James, R-North Pole, who said the transfer would spur economic development in the Denali Borough and help relieve a visitor bottleneck at the single entrance to the park.

''Many Alaskans have strongly supported a new route into the park -- for tourists and for Alaskans alike,'' James said.

Despite opposition from conservationists, some local residents and state officials, the bill has moved quickly through the House since its introduction in mid-April.

However, on Monday the Senate Resources Committee held the bill after a hearing because of questions raised by opponents. Testifying by telephone, critics characterized the bill as a giveaway of state lands for a private development project because Kantishna Holdings Inc. is the only company named in the bill. The borough or state would not solicit bids for the railroad construction.

''This is a most unusual way for land to be selected,'' said Joan Frankevich with the National Parks Conservation Association.

The Park Service has not formally objected but called the bill premature because planning efforts have yet to determine whether a road or railroad should be built or whether any new access is needed at all.

In one study, the Park Service and state are looking at the development of recreational facilities along an old mining road in the same area called the Stampede Trail. John Quinley, a Park Service spokesman, said the federal government has provided $1.5 million to study various northern accesses. A bill to provide state matching money for that work is also moving through the Legislature.

''It seems premature for the Legislature to lock in one solution and one company before taking a comprehensive look,'' Quinley said.

Fields said Alaskans should support the project because it would provide 300 to 900 jobs in the Healy area and it would provide another way into the park without harming the environment. He figures the rail line would cost $135 million to $155 million, a major private investment.

''You don't see that very often outside the oil patch,'' Fields said.

He argues that the transfer isn't a sole-source contract since it isn't a state project. ''This is a proposal we've made,'' he said.

The bill specifies that the borough would work with Kantishna Holdings to identify and survey a corridor not more than 300 feet wide. The land would be transferred by Sept. 1.

The bill also repeals a 1998 bill that granted Kantishna Holdings a similar right of way on state land parallel to the Stampede Trail. That legislation authorized the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to raise $28 million in bonds for the project, but nothing ever happened.

Katelyn Markley, a development specialist with AIDEA, said the developers never proved that the project financially feasible.

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