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“The Road to Ambler” Would Scar Alaska’s Brooks Range

Proposed route through wilderness area would pave way for new mines

If Alaskan Governor Sean Parnell gets his way, an industrial road through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is in our future.

Parnell has called for “Roads to Resources” in his efforts to subsidize development in Alaska – in this case, the development of new mines. As The Wilderness Society details in its report, Easy to Start: Impossible to Finish by Lois Epstein, these mega-projects are fiscally irresponsible and rarely achieve even their basic objectives. And, in the process, they do serious harm to intact ecosystems. 

Brooks Range, Alaskaphoto by Terry Feuerborn, on FlickrBrooks Range, Alaska

No wonder many Alaskans – including Native communities – are opposed to the proposed Road to Ambler. Rural villages in the region have spoken out against the road, with six individual communities and the Tanana Chief’s Conference passing resolutions opposing the project during the past year.

The Road to Ambler is not a new, innovative idea. The State of Alaska tried once already to push it through, in the mid-1980s. The project died because it was financially unfeasible and rural communities didn’t want the road.

The road being proposed now would slice 220 miles through the Brooks Mountain Range that anchors the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The National Park Service touts this park and preserve as “premiere wilderness,” a vast landscape of intact ecosystems that do not contain any roads or trails.

The Road to Ambler would grievously harm the area. It would:

  • Cross nearly 200 streams and rivers;
  • Require the construction of 14 major bridges, some over federally designated Wild and Scenic rivers;
  • Disrupt Native Alaskan traditional lands and hunting grounds; and
  • Threaten human health if gravel containing the region’s naturally occurring asbestos is used.

But it would do much more, and probably much worse, harm than just its construction.  The road is intended to allow mining companies to access massive sulfide deposits in the area.  If these mines are developed, it is highly likely they will produce acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage destroys critical fish habitat and can be an ongoing problem for hundreds or thousands of years after mining is completed.

So why is the Alaskan Legislature still throwing money at the proposed Road to Ambler? The FY2015 capital budget is set to appropriate $8.5 million to continue studies for road planning. So far $18.5 million have already been appropriated to get this road through permitting, more than quadrupling the original $4.5 million estimated by the Alaska Department of Transportation in 2010. In 2013 the flailing project was transferred from ADOT to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), a public corporation that promotes private development, and state money continues to be squandered on the project.

As state money continues to be squandered on this project, many people are asking: Is it right to allow corporate welfare to destroy Alaskan wilderness?

Riches abound here in Alaska – and not just in copper and gold, but also the natural wealth of unique landscape. Here the land stretches for hundreds of miles uncrossed by roads, railways, or any sign of the industrial world. But undeveloped shouldn’t be confused with uninhabited. Native Alaskans have been living in the Brooks Range for thousands of years. They have hunted caribou and moose, fished for salmon and sheefish, carefully balancing human need with healthy sustainable wildlife populations. This is the land of ultimate sustainability, the land you pick up National Geographic to see. This is a place we need to protect, a place that would be ruined by unsustainable “Roads to Resources.”

Learn more about the Road to Ambler at the Northern Center’s website

When ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) was made into law in 1980, the law’s authors knew that the Ambler Mineral District was a prime candidate for mineral development. So lawmakers wrote a clause into ANILCA that would allow for an access corridor to be granted through the “boot” of Gates of the Arctic Park and Preserve. There is no language in ANILCA, however, describing what this corridor should look like or when it should be built. The National Park Service and the Department of the Interior have been hard at work trying to figure out what their requirements for a right of way are before AIDEA formally applies for a right of way. This application could be filed in May of 2014.

This is where you come in – because we need your help to fight this road. Close your eyes and think of Alaska. Picture the fresh, clean rivers. Picture the wildlife you might see on the banks of those rivers. Breathe in the clean air, unpolluted by modern development. This place is worth protecting.

Each year thousands of visitors come to Alaska to experience this land, to float the rivers, to backpack in the bush. Someday you, your children, or your grandchildren may want to visit a place like this. So stay tuned: the Interior Department will have a comment period on the road proposal later this year. And then add your voice to help us protect the Alaska that you just pictured.

Jill Yordy
Jill Yordy is the clean water and mining program director at Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

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