Tribes, activists gird for fight over Ambler Road rejection

By Hannah Northey | 04/19/2024 04:22 PM EDT

The Bureau of Land Management determined the proposed road to a mining district in northern Alaska would result in irreparable harm to permafrost and wildlife.

A small mountain lake near the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

A small tarn is seen in a hidden valley at the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The proposed 211-mile Ambler Road would run through the park. Cadence Cook/National Park Service via AP

Alaskan tribal members and environmental advocates who cheered the Biden administration’s move to block the proposed Ambler mining road are now girding for political and legal attacks from opponents eager to overturn the decision.

But having a federal analysis rejecting the project in hand, they said, will help.

“I feel like we’re in a much better place than we were before, when the prior administration rushed that EIS and our fight and our lawsuit was for a full SEIS,” Brian Ridley, chief of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, told reporters on a call Friday. “Now I feel like we have a much stronger report to back up all of the things that we’ve been fighting — the animals, the water, you name it.”


First Chief of Evansville Frank Thompson said the decision amounted to “temporary shelter,” noting that tribes are fighting other exploratory mining projects in the state, including the Roosevelt project in northern Alaska, where miners are exploring for copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold mineralization.

“This is sort of a big small win in the fight that, I believe, is going to be forthcoming,” said Thompson. “I’m so thankful for the administration hearing our voices.”

The Bureau of Land Management in a lengthy analysis called for rejecting the proposed Ambler Road, concluding that all proposed routes to access the Ambler mining district in northwestern Alaska would result in irreparable harm to permafrost and wildlife, including caribou, which many local people rely on for food. The 211-mile-long road would have cut through the Brooks Range of Alaska and the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to access copper, zinc and other mineral deposits.

If finalized in a record of decision (ROD), the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), the state-owned development bank that’s pursuing the project, would not receive a right of way to build the road across federally managed public lands. BLM said it will issue a ROD no sooner than 30 days from the publication of the final EIS in the Federal Register.

BLM’s analysis laid out a dire situation in which the road would worsen melting permafrost, stress the habitat and migration patterns of the western Arctic caribou herd.

BLM under the Biden administration conducted a more expansive environmental review of the proposed road after the Trump administration approved the project in 2020. The Trump-era move was later challenged in court.

Two years later, the Biden administration reversed course, suspending approval to address “deficiencies” in the earlier environmental review, including inadequate consultation with Alaska Natives and a need to review how subsistence fishing and hunting would be affected.

Steven Cohn, BLM’s state director in Alaska, wrote in the analysis that the road, as proposed, “would significantly impact resources, including important subsistence resources and uses, in ways that cannot be adequately mitigated.”

AIDEA has already vowed to sue, while Republican lawmakers like Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska said they’ll use legislative maneuvers to reverse the decision — or get the job done under a future Republican administration.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola also oppose the administration’s decision. Peltola, the first Alaska Native to represent the state in Congress, in a statement said rejection is “premature, as real conversations among stakeholders in the region are ongoing” and that it should be up to Alaskans to decide if they want to develop their areas.

But Ridley, one of the chiefs who opposes the road, said that even if the White House changes hands, Alaskan tribes are now on stronger legal footing.

“Having a full SEIS, that was the key, that was exactly what we fought for so hard, because the last administration rushed through and pushed it through,” he said.

Jobs, minerals, lawsuits

Not all Alaska tribes were against the Ambler project. Some leaders said they were disappointed in the Biden administration’s decision, saying they saw the road and future mining providing jobs in a region already seeing the effects of climate change.

“Salmon runs have been very low in recent years and caribou are scarce in our area. We need this road access to feed our families and allow for more affordable goods to be transported to our community, as well as the jobs and investment it would provide for our village,” said PJ Simon, first chief of the Allakaket Tribal Council.

Miles Cleveland, president of the native village of Ambler, and a Northwest Arctic Borough assembly member, said the final federal analysis made clear that Indigenous voices were drowned out by groups outside the state that don’t understand local struggles. Cleveland said the road could ease high costs for food and energy, as well as boost a sagging economy that’s pushing young people to leave.

“There is no road access to my village of Ambler. The only way to reach my village is by plane and this goes for all of the villages in the region,” said Cleveland. “This is the only way our villages will survive. The Ambler Road is a path forward for my grandchildren and my people.”

Proponents of the road say that it’s the only way to access the Ambler district, which has been targeted for exploration since the 1950s and is home to a major mineral belt.

Mining companies have staked out more than 160,000 acres of mining claims in the region, according to federal data. One of those projects is a proposed open-pit copper and zinc mine that Ambler Metals is pursuing, a joint venture between Australian firm South32 and Canadian company Trilogy Metals.

Kaleb Froehlich, Ambler Metals’ managing director, said in a statement that he’s deeply disappointed by BLM’s “politically motivated decision” to block the proposed road.

By doing so, Froehlich said the administration is depriving Alaska Native communities of thousands of well-paying jobs, tax revenues and economic investment, as well as hamstringing the effort to develop a domestic supply of minerals that are critical to cutting emissions and boosting national security.

Froehlich also insisted the project could be built safely with “minimal environmental disturbance” adding that the company is committed to moving the project forward through “all possible avenues.”

For AIDEA, one main avenue is legal action. Randy Ruaro, the authority’s executive director, said the rejection violates federal law and vowed to sue.

“We are fully prepared to take all necessary legal actions to challenge this senseless political maneuver as it not only jeopardizes the creation of thousands of jobs and over $1.3 billion in economic benefits but also weakens America by depending on unstable and environmentally destructive foreign mineral sources,” said Ruaro.

But tribal members and activists opposed to the road insisted northwestern Alaska can thrive without mining that threatens subsistence resources and questioned assertions that the area is rich in minerals.

“The state of Alaska and these international mining companies have made these big claims and repeatedly have failed to demonstrate that those claims have the data to back it up,” said John Gaedeke, chair of the Brooks Range Council. “So many of the claims, both from the critical mineral perspective, from the economic benefits perspective, and from the financing perspective, aren’t based in fact.”