A Chance to Stop the Ambler Road (Alaska)

Let’s stop the destructive road into the Brooks Range for good.
Write now to kill the Ambler access road.

 

The Kobuk River near the village of Kobuk, Brooks Range, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner

While most attention of conservation groups has focused on proposals to drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, a perhaps bigger threat to Alaska’s wildlands comes from the proposed Ambler Road. The Ambler Road would access the Ambler Mining District near the headwaters of the Kobuk River along the southern slope of the western Brooks Range in Alaska.

Narvak Lake near the headwaters of the Kobuk River. The proposed Ambler Road would pass just north of this lake. Photo George Wuerthner

The Trump administration pushed through a rapid and flawed Environmental review of the proposed road, and the Record of Decision issued in 2020 approved the road’s construction. Fortunately, the Biden Administration has remanded the decision to permit the Ambler Road back to the Bureau of Land Management for additional environmental review giving the public another chance to halt this destructive project. I have previously written about the Ambler Road and its threats to the region as have others. The Brooks Range Council is a local group opposed to the Ambler Road.

Salmon drying on a fish rack. Many native people in this part of Alaska still depend on fish and wildlife. Photo George Wuerthner

The problem for anyone opposing the Ambler Road is that the Ambler Mining District is a “world-class” deposit of copper, containing ten times higher grade ore than any other known deposits in the world.

Map of Ambler Road route. Purple is Gates of the Arctic NP, blue is state land, Brown is native lands. 

Most of the mining claims are owned by NANA, an NW Alaska Inuipat tribal corporation.In 2011, NANA and Trilogy Metals formed the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects (UKMP), a partnership that brings together Bornite and a number of other copper-rich prospects on NANA-owned lands with the world-class Arctic deposit and dozens of similar volcanogenic massive sulfide prospects located on state, federal and patented mining claims in the Ambler Mining District.

NANA wants to develop the Ambler mines as it has done for the Red Dog Mine (a Zinc mine) north of Kotzebue. Red Dog is considered the most toxic mining operation in America. Profits from the Red Dog mine is a significant source of funds for NANA.

Although the value of the Ambler ore deposit has been known for decades, the cost of access has always impeded development.

Where Ernie Creek joins the North Fork of the Koyukuk at the Gates of the Arctic named by Robert Marshall. The Ambler Road would lie just south of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and cross the park’s southwest corner. Photo George Wuerthner

The Ambler Road would solve this problem. The proposed road would run from the Dalton Highway (Pipeline Haul Road) 211 miles across the southern edge of the Brooks Range, passing through federal (Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Kobuk Wild and Scenic River), state land, and native private holdings.

The proposed project crosses state lands (61%) and Native corporation lands (15%) but also crosses federal lands (24%) managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS). Conservation groups and some tribal groups, in particular the Tanana Chiefs, oppose the mine.

The Athabascan people live in villages along the Koyukuk River which is a tributary of the Yukon River. The Athabascan  fear the Ambler Road will provide no financial benefit, and only negatives harming wildlife and fishing/hunting opportunities. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Athabascan people of the Koyukuk region will receive no financial benefit from the mining operations and just the negatives. The Tanana Chiefs represent the Athabascan people of the Koyukuk River Basin which the road will cross. They are mostly concerned about potential impacts the road could bring to hunting and fishing activities.

Inuipat (Eskimo) children on the Kobuk River. NANA Corportion which represents Inuipat people of the region is supportive of the Ambler Mining project because they will receive royalties from mining operations. 

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), passed in 1980, created many new national parks like the Gates of the Arctic National Park. ANILCA had a clause authorizing the road. “Congress finds that there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road), and the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection.”

The word “shall” almost makes the road’s approval guaranteed.

Alaska is a big proponent of the mine project and road. Much of the route crosses state-owned land, which would facilitate permitting. However, since the road would also cross federal land, the road project must be approved by the BLM to move forward.

The Northwestern Alaska caribou herds have declined. Research shows that roads can be a barrier to caribou migration. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Ambler Road, if built, will pass over 3000 creeks and 11 major rivers and create a potential barrier to migration for the western Arctic caribou herd, which is currently in steep decline. The herd once numbered an estimated 500,000 individuals and most recently is estimated to be 188,000.

Research done at the Red Dog Mining area has demonstrated that roads can negatively impact caribou migrations. For example, a study of the Native-owned Red Dog Mine Industrial Access road north of Kotzebue found that just four vehicles an hour affected the migration of 30% of collared caribou or approximately 72,000 individuals of the 2017 population estimates.

Shungnak on the Kobuk River, one of the native villages near the Ambler Road route, Brooks Range, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

In the meantime, two-state permits currently open for comments include AIDEA’s request for a 50-year exclusive easement on state lands and another for a site-specific land use plan. The comment period has been extended to April 1, meaning there’s still time to let the state know that no further permits should be issued. You can send comments to the state at this address.

 


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Comments

  1. Linda D Avatar
    Linda D

    Comment submitted. TY got your detailed reports.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    From the article above, “The problem for anyone opposing the Ambler Road is that the Ambler Mining District is a “world-class” deposit of copper, containing ten times higher grade ore than any other known deposits in the world.”

    Well, I say if they want the road and a mine even considered, they must first clean up their Red Dog Mine. This is near Kotzebue, Alaska. Red Dog is known as the most toxic mine in America. I am tired of the corruption in our government where environmental criminals and similair miscreants are never punished.

    1. Niyachen Avatar
      Niyachen

      There are some misleading statements. Red Dog Mine is not the most toxic mine. That is a misleading state brought about by not understanding the terminology the EPA uses. The toxic waste “produced” is just the natural rock that contains lead and zinc. This is not acid rock runoff or chemicals from the process, this is just the unused ore that is put back in the ground. The mine actually cleaned up Red Dog Creek because it originally ran through the exposed ore body naturally leaching metals into the rivers. All that runoff is not collected and treated to secondary water standards, those just below drinking water standards. Fish have migrated into Red Dog Creek where before it was too toxic.

      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan

        Thank you for these comments.

  3. Ni Yachen Avatar
    Ni Yachen

    The statement “The Athabascan people of the Koyukuk region will receive no financial benefit from the mining operations and just the negatives” is wrong. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) Section 7(i) requires all resources to be shared roughly equally by all of the Native Regional Corporations (these are the federal tribal governments. Tanana Chiefs Council(TCC) is represented by Doyon and has been receiving a share of the revenue from Red Dog Mine even though they put not investment into it. The mine will also have native Alaskan hiring preferences which include all native Alaskans. Also, there will be facilities on the east side of the road that will east side of the road on or near Doyon land. TCC doesn’t own the land Doyon does.

  4. Malcolm Atteberry Avatar
    Malcolm Atteberry

    I love how the white racist left want to keep the Alaska native population poor and trapped in the villages. Once these people have truck and car access to Fairbanks and the rest of the world it will bring down the cost of literally everything for them. It will cut down the teen suicide rate, because teens could escape bad situations. I’m pretty sure the opinion about the ambler roads’s “worth” to the local people will take a 180 turn once it’s built. Get out of the Way of Progress!

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      Not challenging what you are saying, but are there any statistics showing having a truck (or individual transportation) aiding in suicide prevention for teens in Alaska? As opposed to having a counselor, elder, or friend? I’d assume so, but would like to see analytical data before agreeing. I’m pretty sure TV is a better secondary cause, as it creates false expectations.

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