Ambler Road Construction Denied by Biden Administration

This past week the Biden Administration reversed a permit approved by the Trump Administration that would have allowed  the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to construct a 211-mile industrial road through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to access copper and zinc deposits in Northwest Alaska.

Brooks Range near the village of Kobuk where Ambler Road will be constructed. Photo George Wuerthner

Except for the route across the Gates of the Arctic, the majority of the proposed road would have crossed state and native lands—both of whom support the proposed mineral development.  For more background on the controversy see my post here.

While I was surveying native land claims along the Kobuk in the 1970s, a flurry of mineral exploration occurred simultaneously. Exploratory prospecting demonstrated that this copper-lead-zinc-cobalt mineral belt extended for miles across the southern edge of the Brooks Range. By 1975, more than 10,000 mining claims covered what has become known as the Ambler Mineral Belt.

Today, the Ambler Mining Belt is the world’s largest high-grade copper deposit. With the growing need for more copper to advance electric cars and other efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, interest in developing the Ambler copper deposits has grown.

The Ambler Road, as it is known, would run from the Pipeline Haul Road (Dalton Highway) across the southern edge of the Brooks Range to mineral deposits near the village of Ambler on the Kobuk River.

The Ambler Road, if constructed, would cross a portion of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Photo George Wuerthner

The route is legislatively protected by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act or ANILCA passed in 1980 which 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 Biden administration determined the proposed road would violate various federal laws and harm wildlife that subsistence users depend upon.

The decision brought immediate condemnation from Alaska’s Congressional Delegation, including Mary Peltola, the state’s Native Congressional representative, as well as many regional Native organizations. The proposed road is seen as essential for the profitable development of the Ambler Mineral District.

There was also native support for the Biden Administration decision. Many individuals and some native villages opposed the road fearing it would harm wildlife and fish that they depend upon for subsistence.

However, the Ambler Road is a classic example of how native people usually determine their position on environmentally harmful exploitation.

The native people opposed to the Ambler Road generally fear that construction and use will harm caribou herds and subsistence activities. Photo George Wuerthner

Although often portrayed as the “first” environmentalists, native people behave just like almost all humans. They put self-interest first, and Ambler Road is no exception. This distinction is seldom mentioned by the media and never by conservation groups who tend to ignore Native positions that are harmful to the land or wildlife.

As a generalization, the support of the Ambler Road and by extension, development of the Ambler Mining District depends on whether there is an anticipated financial payback.

Nearly all the subsurface mineral and in many cases, the surface rights to the massive copper deposits of the Ambler District are owned by regional native corporations. All shareholders of these Native corporations will get an annual dividend. Villagers near the mining district anticipate high paying jobs, and thus support the road and mineral development as well.

As reported by Alaska NPR, Voice of the Arctic Inupiat, a pro-development advocacy group comprised of Indigenous leaders and funded in part by the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and North Slope Borough, called the NPR-A decision “insulting.”

“We deserve the same right to economic prosperity and essential services as the rest of this country and are being denied the opportunity to take care of our residents and community with this decision,” North Slope Borough Mayor Josiah Patkotak said in a statement.

Many native leaders are frustrated by federal land decisions. For instance, Charles Lampe, president of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation and a member of the Native Village of Kaktovik community is typical of many rural Native Alaskans when he opined:”Since all these federal actions, we have been subjected to eco-colonialism – we are treated as colonistson our own lands and are subject to federal approvals for almost everything we need,” Lampe said.

The majority of those native groups and individuals opposed to the road tend to be villagers who anticipate few financial benefits from the road and mining operations but expect harm to their subsistence lifestyle.

A good example of the different motivations of Native people can be seen in The Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents 42 villages in interior Alaska, some of whom are near the proposed road. In 2020 the Tanana Chiefs Conference sued the Interior Department arguing that impacts on fish and wildlife were not adequately addressed.  Since 2020, however, three of the Tanana Chiefs Conference villages along the Ambler Road proposed route now say they support the road because of its anticipated economic benefits.

BACKGROUND

The seeds for conflict over the Ambler Road was set up decades ago with the signing of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The Act provided for the transfer of 45 million acres of federal land in the state to regional, village and individual native people. Native regional organizations representing shareholders from the region tended to pick lands with potential resource value.

The regional group in the heavily forested Southeast Alaska picked lands with old growth forests and potential for timber cutting, while in other parts of the state, land with high mineral value or oil were the property of choice.

Not surprisingly, today the majority of high value mineral lands and nearly all the major mining operations in the state are owned by native groups. For instance, the NANA Corporation representing the native people of NW Alaska owns the Red Dog zinc operation north of Kotzebue Alaska.

Canning River, Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Brooks Range, Alaska. Photo Georege Wuerthner

While the Arctic Slope Borough which owns the subsurface rights to much of the coastal plain are advocates of drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and National Petroleum Reserve, a fact typically obscured or hidden from the membership of conservation organizations like the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and others.

It is therefore surprising to me given the substantial native support for development of the Ambler Mineral deposits that the Biden Administration was willing to deny a permit for the Ambler Road. At the same time, they also protected 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve from future oil development, though the Willow Project will be allowed to continue in another portion of the Reserve.

THE FUTURE-IT’S NOT OVER YET

The state of Alaska, which firmly supports road and mineral development, will likely appeal the decision, and Alaska’s Congressional Delegation is also likely to attempt a reversion of the decision.

The Kobuk River in Northwest Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner

Beyond those efforts, there are also alternative routes for transporting mineral ore to the ocean where it will be shipped overseas (likely China) for refinement of routes that do not cross a national park and are likely to have less “harm” on wildlife. For instance, an alternative route would have the mineral ore transported to Nome, Alaska where it could be stockpiled and shipped in the summer months.

Althougrh the Biden decision to deny a permit is a good one, the question for me and others who oppose the Ambler mine development is whether the benefits of industrialization of one of the wildest places in Alaska are worth the cost to the wild.

While the Ambler mineral zone does possess globally significant ore resources, these minerals can be obtained elsewhere, where the ecological and social costs are lower. We cannot recreate wildlands, and these landscapes are increasingly rare on a planet where human intrusion and development is proceeding at a rapid pace.

Update May 2024 NANA corporation has withdrawn its support for the Ambler Road due to insufficient consultation with local villages along the route. This adds one more hurtle for mining advocates to overcome.

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George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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