Residents of the Nenana region say the state is moving too fast on farmland sales

The 140,000-acre Nenana Totchaket agricultural project is just west of town, and the state has begun selling land in a 100,000-acre area within the project. The new bridge over the Nenana River, in the foreground, which opened two years ago provides better access to the agricultural project. (Photo by John Whipple/Alaska Department of Agriculture)

Some Nenana-area residents are calling on the state to delay land sales at a 140,000-acre agricultural project just west of town. They say the state should talk more with local residents and complete soil and resource studies for the project before proceeding with sales.

The state held its first auction last month for 2,000 acres of the Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project, which state officials call an effort to improve Alaska’s food security. But many locals say they and their ancestors were harvesting food from the land and its waterways long before the project was proposed, and they doubt it will bring more food security.

“When I grew up there, it was just abundant resources. We lived comfortably off the land,” says Eva Burk, who grew up on land that is now part of the agricultural project.

Burk is Dene Athabascan, and she and her family, like many other area residents, spent summers at a fishing camp and winters working on a trapline. But she says fish and wildlife populations have been declining for decades.

“We were living comfortably off the land,” she said in a recent interview. “You can’t do that anymore, because the resources aren’t there.”

Phase 1 of the Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project covers approximately 30,000 acres. (Alaska Division of Agriculture)

Burk thinks it’s mainly because of state mismanagement, as well as the impacts of climate change. She says if the state was really interested in food security, it would consider the impacts of large-scale development and reconsider plans for land clearing and road construction.

“If we’ve already seen a decline in resources in my short life, then putting more infrastructure and more people will certainly have a bigger impact,” she said. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes before.”

Fairbanks State Fish and Game wildlife research biologist Tom Paragi says wildlife populations can rise and fall for many reasons, including wildfires. Paragi says another could be a new bridge over the Nenana River which has facilitated access to the agricultural project.

“So there will be more non-local people who might go to that area now,” he said. “So there you’re going to set up competitions for hunting and trapping, things like that.”

Nenana resident Kat McElroy agrees and thinks this is one of the ways the project can actually reduce food security.

“That land over there is the grocery store for a lot of the population,” she said. “They’ve been there for generations.”

McElroy and Burk and others say much of the agricultural project land is not suitable for farming, and they are concerned that too much of this land will be sold for agriculture and ranching. . They both support agriculture – McElroy operates a farm and Burk runs a community garden and a fish wheel. She is also working on a master’s degree in natural resources and environment at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, with a focus on sustainable agriculture and community development.

Kat McElroy emphatically voices her concerns to state agriculture division director Dave Schade, left, and other state and local officials during the National Agriculture Day observance. agricultural education in Nenana on June 10. McElroy blames state officials for promoting the development of industrial agriculture and large-scale monocultures that will degrade soils and prevent people from buying land. (Courtesy of Margi Dashevsky/Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition)

Both say that the state is moving too quickly on the agricultural project without considering other ways to develop it. And, says Burk, without completing studies on the impacts on the land and its resources.

“You have to slow down, because you have to know your soils, and you keep doing that (the study),” she said. “You have to slow down because you have to know where your fish and wildlife are. And you keep doing that (studying).

The state held its first agricultural project land auction last month, a 2,000-acre bid included in the 30,000 acres to be developed under Phase 1. The Agriculture Division Director of the state, Dave Schade, said the state is planning another auction for next year. He says the state has surveyed the terrain and conducted investigations there, including photographic and with a Lidar laser sensor. But he recognizes that some studies, such as the one on soils, are incomplete.

“When we have the first 30,000 full acres of soil studies, we’ll do some more testing,” he said in a recent interview.

McElroy also blames state officials for promoting the so-called large-scale industrial agricultural monoculture development that will degrade soils and prevent people from buying land.

“Industrial agriculture has a very bad reputation when it comes to destroying land,” she said, “and those concerns just haven’t been listened to.”

The state offered 27 lots in the first land auction, ranging from 21 acres to just over 300 acres. Schade says the Agriculture Division invited the public to comment on the project, held several meetings and adjusted its plans. And he says there will be more chances for public consultation between land sales, especially from those who want to invest in the agricultural project.

“It’s a small set, 2,000 acres, to get market feedback on what they want and how we can make it work,” he said. “If people don’t want the land and they don’t bid, well, we know we’re not right.”

Schade says state officials have been studying the project since it was proposed 30 years ago, and now they want to move forward.

Burk says the state’s determination to move forward without completing education and ignoring community concerns shows that its leaders are more interested in selling the land than protecting it.

Amalia H. Mercado