Alaska Gov. Dunleavy fires two Susitna road opponents from land management advisory board

Israel Mahay, who owns a Susitna river jet boat business, had chaired the Recreation Rivers Advisory board. Mike Overcast, who owns a heliskiing lodge in the Susitna watershed, was set to replace him.

Alaska Gov. Dunleavy fires two Susitna road opponents from land management advisory board
The Susitna River near its mouth at Cook Inlet, some 17 miles west of Anchorage. The peaks of the Alaska Range loom in the background. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

Northern Journal is a newsletter written by me, Anchorage journalist Nat Herz. It’s free to subscribe, and stories are also free to Alaska news outlets to republish through a partnership with the Alaska Beacon.

My goal is reaching the broadest possible audience of Alaskans. But if you can afford it, please consider supporting my work with a $100 annual or $10 monthly voluntary paid membership — these are currently my only sources of revenue for this project. Your support allows me to stay independent and untethered to the demands of the day-to-day news cycle. If you’ve already subscribed, thank you.

Alaska GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy has fired two opponents of a mining road proposed in the Mat-Su from a state board that helps shape a land management plan for the area.

Last month, in a pair of two-sentence letters, Dunleavy fired Mike Overcast and Israel Mahay from the Susitna Basin Recreation Rivers Advisory Board.

The 13 members of the volunteer board are appointed by the governor. They’re charged with helping the Alaska Department of Natural Resources on periodic revisions to an existing management plan for 380 square miles of state land in the Susitna River watershed.

Mahay had chaired the board, and he said Overcast was set to take over his position before Dunleavy removed him.

The Susitna River, which flows into Cook Inlet some 15 miles west of Anchorage, drains a huge swath of Southcentral Alaska between Denali and the Chugach mountains. The 300-mile river — the 15th-largest in the United States — and its tributaries sustain substantial salmon runs.

The Susitna watershed is also the site of the proposed $350 million West Susitna Access Project — a new 100-mile road proposed by the state's economic development agency, which is a priority of Dunleavy's.

Critics say the project threatens salmon habitat and the wilderness character of an undeveloped part of the state. Dunleavy and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority say it would open access to minerals, timber, coal and renewable energy sources, along with recreational opportunities.

Overcast owns a heli-ski and sport fishing resort near the Susitna River called Tordrillo Mountain Lodge. And he’s also on the board of the Alaska Range Alliance — an advocacy group formed a year ago to oppose the road project and that, on its website, blasts the idea as a "half-a-billion dollar dumpster fire."

Mahay owns a family-run jetboat tour company on the Susitna; his father, Steve, was the first person to boat up the river’s treacherous Devil's Canyon, in 1985. While Mahay said in a phone interview last week that he personally doesn’t support the road, he hasn’t been publicly expressing that opinion.

Dunleavy removed both men in identical letters dated June 21, after the board finished a series of meetings that ended with compiling a list of recommended changes to the area’s existing management plan.

"This letter is to inform you that you are being removed from the Recreation Rivers Advisory Board effective immediately,” Dunleavy’s letter said. “While I have appreciated your willingness to serve, I have determined that your continued representation on the board is not in the best interest of Alaska.”

In an email, a spokesman for Dunleavy, Jeff Turner, declined to provide an explanation for the governor's decision or to say if the firings relate to the road project.

"We have nothing to add beyond what was included in the letters," Turner said.

Overcast, in a phone interview, said he asked for a more detailed explanation for his removal and hasn't heard back.

"I have no intel whatsoever," he said.

Overcast said he and Mahay were careful not to "poison" the advisory board "with any sort of personal belief" about the road. But he also said he thinks the group's work, and the management plan for the Susitna tributaries, could make it harder for the state to build the road.

"It may be in some people's interest to see the plan entirely go away, because it would be difficult to cross those rivers the way that the plan is written," Overcast said. "It could get in the way of this plan to punch a road into the Su basin, for sure."

Alaska law does not give the advisory board veto power over development. But it does require the state’s natural resources commissioner to consult with the board before changing the region’s river management plan or “regulations affecting use and management of the recreation rivers.”

Mahay, for his part, said he received his letter from the governor's office two weeks before the end of his term as chair of the board.

"They just removed two respected business owners for no apparent reason," he said.

In his view, Mahay said, the previous version of the management plan and a newly rewritten version developed by the advisory board have no effect on the state's ability to build the road, he added.

The terse tone of the letter from Dunleavy's office, Mahay added, was "uncalled for."

"That letter was harsh and it was disrespectful," he said. "That language that they're using for a respectful citizen of Alaska that's been here their whole life is wrong."

A few weeks after getting the governor’s letter, Mahay said, he received a follow-up message from Jordan Shilling, Dunleavy’s deputy who manages the state’s boards and commissions.

“It’s clear to me that the language needs to be softened and we need to do better at confirming the status of a member before taking action,” Shilling’s message said. “We’ll fix processes on our end.”

After Overcast’s and Mahay’s removal, the advisory board now has five vacancies — including for members representing the mining industry, commercial fishermen, private property owners, sportfishermen and powerboat users.

Northern Journal is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.