BLM advances Alaska 'Road to Resources'

Dylan Brown, E&E News reporter
Published: Friday, March 27, 2020

The Bureau of Land Management published a final environmental impact statement for a mining road that would partly run through a section of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, pictured here. National Park Service

The Interior Department today paved the way for a road across an untouched part of Alaska, connecting potential new mines to the outside world.

The Bureau of Land Management published a final environmental impact statement outlining no environmental impacts significant enough to stop the proposed Ambler Road.

At 211 miles, the gravel track would start along the unpaved Dalton Highway 200 miles north of Fairbanks and run south of Alaska's Brooks Range, through a 26-mile section of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve on its way to the Ambler Mining District.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority calls its project a "Road to Resources," arguing it will bring billions of dollars of economic activity to a remote region through decades of mining.

A joint venture between Australian firm South32 Ltd. and Canadian company Trilogy Metals Inc. already has plans for mining copper, as well as zinc, lead and other metals, at several sites in Alaska's Kobuk Valley (Greenwire, Aug. 28, 2019).

Alaska Native tribes have fought the road, which they see as a threat to wildlife, fish, and the subsistence hunting and fishing that remain a necessary way of life in the region. Environmental groups have also condemned blazing a trail through one of the world's last unspoiled places and into the path of one of Earth's longest migrations.

"What a tragedy for our nation if we allow new mining to destroy the western Arctic caribou herd and a migration that has moved across this land for millennia," said Alex Johnson, the National Parks Conservation Association's Alaska program manager.

Congress first made reaching the Ambler Mining District a goal in 1980.

"Congress finds that there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes ... from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road," states the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which otherwise set aside massive swaths of the Last Frontier for preservation.

The state began exploring potential routes only in 2009. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority took charge of the project in 2013.

The agency, which has already spent $28 million on the road, is holding a special meeting today, despite statewide coronavirus closures, to vote on whether to allocate an additional $35 million.

"You should help Alaskans through this time," Patricia Gaedeke, owner of the Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge, told authority board members during a public comment session yesterday, according to the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. "Instead, you are using this time for profiteering."

Alaska Native tribes have criticized federal consultation, but BLM Alaska State Director Chad Padgett praised his staff for traveling to more than 20 communities in the project area to gather input and "traditional knowledge."

"Those efforts contributed to this comprehensive analysis that will help pave the way for Alaska to responsibly develop its natural resources and create jobs," he said in a statement.

According to BLM, the road would have a "small to medium" impact on subsistence.

"The magnitude of impacts to fish, caribou, and other food sources is not as clear because of uncertainties about the populations in the area and whether and how they would react to a road," the agency wrote.

The National Parks Conservation Association's Johnson blasted BLM for "ramming" the project through during a global health crisis.

"The Trump administration is sending a clear signal that they care more about the success of the mining industry than the health of the Alaska Native communities, remarkable Arctic wildlife, and our national parks and preserves," Johnson said.

Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan welcomed the news.

"Projects like this will open the door to responsible resource development that will ultimately enhance our mineral security, boost the state economy, and create economic opportunity for the region," Murkowski said, urging BLM and AIDEA to redouble local engagement.

"Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we continue to advance projects like this one, which can lead to economic opportunities and good paying jobs for Alaskans," Sullivan said.

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