Off Track

A road project through the Alaskan tundra could open up the Brooks Range to mining and harm wildlife and Native lifeways.

APRIL MONROE SPENT HER teenage years in Evansville, an Alaska Native village that sits on the willow-lined banks of the Koyukuk River on the southern flank of the Brooks Range, some 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The tundra village currently has a permanent population of fewer than a dozen people and abuts the town of Bettles (permanent population: 30), which serves as an entry point to the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, the northernmost national park in the United States. Evansville can only be reached by air, boating down the Koyukuk River, or using an ice road in winter. Villagers here either work in the tourism business, for the tribe, or collect weather data at the local weather station. Nearly all people regionally depend, at least in part, on subsistence hunting and gathering.

Though she no longer lives in Evansville year-round, Monroe has fond memories of her adolescent years living in a more direct relationship with the land, steeped in the Iñupiat culture. “There’s a general misconception that this area is all fields of frozen tundra. This is a drop-you-to-your-knee beautiful wilderness,” she says. She recalls picking autumn-bruised blueberries and cranberries, hunting caribou, a dietary staple, shooting ducks in spring and the aroma of duck soup wafting from the kitchen, fishing for sheefish in late summer and early fall, and going to potlatches, gatherings where everyone shared food, dance, and song over several days.

“This is a drop-you-to-your-knee beautiful wilderness.”

“Our big springtime excitement was always when the river ice broke up,” she says. It meant a break from the long, dark winter, the return of the longer days of light, and the abundance of wild foods in summer.

Flanked by the golden-gray ridges of the Brooks Range, this region of sweeping valleys with low shrubs, mosses and sedges, and meandering glacial rivers, lakes, and streams (all of which turn into a frigid, white moonscape during the long winter months) has been home to the Athabaskan, Koyukon, Kobuk, Selawik, and Nunamiut people for thousands of years. Despite the seemingly barren landscape, the tundra supports an amazing diversity of life. Its rivers teem with salmon, sheefish (a type of whitefish), northern pike, and grayling. The land is home to mammals big and small, including Arctic ground squirrels, lemmings, Dall sheep, moose, and caribou, along with predators like foxes, black bears, grizzlies, and wolves, and several migratory bird species, including the Arctic terns that arrive in summer in time to raise their chicks on a protein-rich diet of small fish, mosquitoes, and other insects.

The Indigenous people of this region traditionally lived in small, mobile communities that moved among a series of seasonal camps throughout the year, following wild game and fish. By the time Monroe was born and then moved here, most of these communities had settled in permanent villages and towns like Evansville and Bettles. Still, despite the demands of the colonial, cash-based economy, the people here continued to hold on to their cultural subsistence practices and lived largely off what the land offered.

But the bounty provided by the natural “grocery store” that sustained people here for eons hasn’t been as reliable in recent decades. Monroe, who is in her early 40s, remembers how, even as a teenager, her family had to go farther and farther in search of caribou. Encroaching human development in the 1970s — including oil field expansion in Alaska’s North Slope, the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and the corresponding 414-mile Dalton Highway, which parallels the pipeline’s route across the Brooks Range to the Prudhoe Bay oilfields in the far north — had disturbed the summer migratory route and calving ranges of the Central Arctic caribou herd (one of the four largest caribou herds in Alaska) on which her community depended. Once the highway opened in 1974, the herd population declined, and it stopped passing close to villages.

In the intervening years, more oil drilling, growing road traffic (the Dalton Highway, initially built as an industrial access road, now brings tens of thousands of tourists and sports hunters to the region), and climate disruption have all impacted this Arctic region. The caribou migration and spawning salmon that once used to be as dependable as clockwork are no longer reliable food sources.

“We teach our children the caribou, and the king salmon on the Yukon, are our relatives, but their populations are in such duress that we no longer hunt or fish for them,” says Monroe. “Now we teach them to pray for their health.”

a child plays outdoors

Along the Koyukuk River, Indigenous communities continue to hold onto cultural subsistence practices and live largely off what the land can offer. Photo by Jayme Dittmar.

dall sheep in gates of the arctic national park

Despite the seemingly barren landscape, the tundra around Evansville supports an amazing diversity of life, including Arctic ground squirrels, lemmings, Dall sheep (pictured), and moose. Photo by NPS / Zak Richter.

wolf in gates of the arctic national park

It is also home predators like foxes, black bears, grizzlies, and wolves (pictured). Photo Penny Knuckles / NPS.

Amid all this uncertainty, another road project — a 211-mile one that would cut through the region, enabling a mining company to dig four massive open-pit copper and zinc mines in the western Brooks Range near the villages of Ambler and Kobuk, about 146 miles west of Evansville — further threatens the stability of this ecosystem and her people’s way of life.

“The Arctic is a delicate ecosystem with such a long memory,” says Monroe, native lands manager of Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium representing 42 Alaskan tribes suing the federal government over the project. “This place can’t sustain that type of development that a road would deliver.”

MINING COMPANIES AND politicians have been eyeing the yet-untapped mineral deposits in the western Brooks Range since they were identified during exploration efforts in the 1950s. But in recent years, as the push for mineral resources to power a technology-driven, green energy revolution ramps up in the United States, accessing the deposits has drawn renewed interest from the state and mining companies.

The Ambler Mining District, as it is called, holds some 159 million pounds of copper, 199 million pounds of zinc, 33 million pounds of lead, 3.3 million ounces of silver, and 30,600 ounces of gold, according to a 2018 feasibility study. The copper deposits alone are worth an estimated $7.5 billion today. However, it has never been economically viable to extract these minerals because of the high cost of mining and lack of transportation infrastructure in this remote region, which remains one of the largest roadless areas in the world.

The Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, which aims to connect the Dalton Highway to the mining district, would change that.

The idea of building an access road has, no surprise, been around for a while. In 1980, when the US Congress passed the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), designating more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska as under conservation, it included a clause that would allow an access route connecting the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District, one that would go through the federally managed Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. A proposal to build such a road followed soon after, but quickly died because it was too expensive and Native communities didn’t want it. Some three decades later, in 2012, then Alaskan governor Sean Parnell revived the project as part of a so-called “Road to Resources” initiative that sought to tap natural resources in some of Alaska’s remotest areas.

In 2016, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), the state’s development arm, applied for federal authorization for a route — 24 percent of the route would cross federally managed land, 61 percent would cross state land, and 15 percent would cross land owned by two Alaska Native corporations, the Alaska Native Corporation (NANA), and Doyon Limited. (The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which split up 44 million acres of traditional Native territories into 12 regions, forced the creation of 12 for-profit Alaska Native regional corporations owned by Native shareholders and 200 private Alaska Native village corporations.)

“The Arctic is a delicate ecosystem…. This place can’t sustain that type of development that a road would deliver.”

In 2020, the Trump administration approved a right-of-way for the road to pass through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, bringing the project closer to reality. Lawsuits challenging the approvals quickly followed — one by the Trustees for Alaska, a public interest law firm, which alleged the environmental review of the project was inaccurate and inadequate, and another by five Alaska Native councils and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, also alleging several legal violations, including failing to analyze the impacts to tribes and their subsistence lifestyles meaningfully.

In 2022, the Biden Administration halted the project and asked the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to do a supplemental environmental impact study. A draft of the study, which was released in October, paints a far more dire outlook than the one drawn up by the Trump administration. The study found that the road would harm fish and caribou populations, potentially speed permafrost thaw, and significantly impact the subsistence lifestyle of 66 Alaska Native communities (up from 27 listed in the previous analysis) “because a road would affect wildlife behavior and because it would bisect travel routes used by hunters and affect their access to subsistence use areas.”

Monroe says the new study “is particularly insufficient in its address of environmental justice and subsistence impacts,” but feels validated that it at least acknowledges the road would be catastrophic to the environment and the people and wildlife who depend on it.

The BLM is scheduled to publish a final analysis and decision on the road in spring 2024, after a public comment period that ends on December 22, 2023.

Environmental groups and tribal councils opposing the project, which they have dubbed “Road to Ruin,” are urging the BLM to select the “No Action” alternative and deny authorization for the project. But it’s unclear if the Biden administration, which hopes to fight climate change with alternative energy and is actively looking for sources of new domestic minerals, will stop the road. As with other big projects like the proposed lithium mine in Nevada’s Thacker Pass and the Resolution Copper mine in Arizona’s Oak Flat (a sacred Apache site), the Ambler Road, too, highlights a fundamental dilemma facing US green energy initiatives: It’s nearly impossible to source the minerals necessary for the energy transition without damaging ecosystems, Native lands, and ways of life.

IN ADDITION TO SLICING through 26 miles of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, the Ambler Road would cross open tundra, wetlands, and 3,000 streams, as well as 11 major rivers, including the Alatna, John, and Kobuk rivers that are designated Wild and Scenic. It would intersect village subsistence areas, several salmon, sheefish, and whitefish spawning grounds, and critical caribou migration corridors.

Many Alaska tribes fear the gravel road will eventually open to public use and devastate their culture. (Currently, the road is slated to be for industrial use only. However, Ambler Metals said in an email to me that rural communities near the proposed road need more accessible and affordable access to goods and fuel.)

“Outsiders will be coming into the Upper Kobuk and all the good hunting and subsistence areas; campsites are going to be taken away from the villagers who depend on [them] and [these changes will] devastate this part of the country, as far as our culture goes,” says Cyrus Harris, vice chair of the Western Arctic Herd Working Group, who lives in the Inuit village of Kotzebue about 300 miles west of Evansville. Given its route bisects a huge chunk of Alaska from east to west, the road could impact the watersheds that Native tribes rely on from Canada to the southern Alaskan coast and beyond.

dalton highway and the trans alaska pipeline

When the US Congress passed the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), designating more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska as under conservation, it included a clause that would allow an access route connecting the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District. Photo of the Dalton Highway, Trans Alaska Pipeline, and the middle fork of the Koyukuk River by Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management.

kotzebue, Alaska

With a population of 3,200, Kotzebue is the region’s largest community and economic hub. It is also among the worst industrially polluted towns in the United States. Photo by Neal Herbert / NPS.

Kotzebue lies on a gravel spit on a peninsula jutting into Kotzebue Sound, where three significant rivers converge — the Kobuk, Noatak, and Selawik. With a population of 3,200, it is the region’s largest community and economic hub. It also is among the worst industrially polluted towns in the United States, thanks to the Red Dog Mine, one of the world’s largest lead and zinc mines, located about 80 miles away, near the west end of the proposed Ambler Road. Much like Monroe’s community in Evansville, those living in Kotzebue and other villages in this region can no longer count on the caribou migration or the salmon and sheefish as reliable food sources, and they worry that the project will affect them further.

Further fragmenting habitat with roads is like “gas on an already blazing fire.”

“The Upper Kobuk River is part of the whole watershed,” Harris says. “The coastal communities rely heavily on sea mammals and the ecosystem of the Kobuk River. We rely heavily on the bearded seal and barter with friends in other villages along the Upper Kobuk for caribou and blueberries.”

Even if it is never opened to public use, the Ambler Road, traversing east-west, would block the path of the Western Arctic caribou herd that migrates north-south. One of the largest herds in Alaska, its numbers have decreased from 490,000 caribou in 2003 to 152,000 in 2023, largely due to climate change: The Arctic is warming two times faster than the rest of the world and that’s causing treelines to move farther north, into the tundra, and shrubs to replace lichens, a critical caribou food. Further fragmenting habitat with roads is like “gas on an already blazing fire,” says Jim Dau, former caribou biologist with Alaska Fish and Game.

AIDEA and Ambler Metals, a joint venture of two companies that want to mine the copper deposits, promise the projects won’t affect caribou migration or subsistence cultures. “There’s substantial evidence that caribou herds have thrived near similar road developments on Alaska’s North Slope and in Northwest Alaska without any impact on migration,” says Shalon Harrington, a spokesperson from Ambler Metals, citing Alaska Department of Fish and Game department data that shows that the Central Arctic caribou herd, whose numbers were impacted by the Dalton Highway, currently has a stable and slightly increasing population. (Her statement is true, in a way, because since the highway was built, the animals no longer migrate near the road or near Evansville.)

But Dau’s research on radio-collared caribou has shown that the Western Arctic herd has altered its fall migrations near the Red Dog Mine and road, a 50-mile-long road in the western Brooks Range. He is concerned the Ambler Road, which will be more than four times as long as Red Dog Road and will support four mines, is likely to have much higher traffic and activity levels. Dau remembers seeing maps in the ’80s going exactly where the Ambler Road is proposed but extending much farther to the coast. He believes this is just the beginning of many satellite roads. “Additionally, the road may be extended farther west to reach deep-water port sites in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. If built, these extensions would completely bisect this herd’s range. This could profoundly impact the herd and people who depend on it,” he says.

a group of caribou swimming across a river, mountains in the background

The Ambler Road would block the migration path of the Western Arctic caribou herd whose numbers have plummeted over the past two decades. Photo by NPS / Matt Cameron.

Building the road itself would entail significant landscape disturbance, including creating gravel mines along the route to provide enough construction material, and building numerous maintenance stations, camps, communication towers, and airport runways. The road would be built on permafrost and thus require constant maintenance, and through the boreal forest, with single-span steel bridges supporting trucks carrying ore rumbling around the clock.

The state and Ambler Metals have been silent about how many satellite roads they plan to develop off the proposed route. AIDEA’s communications officer didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Advocates of the Ambler Road repeatedly state that with responsible development, the US can have energy and metals independence, Alaska can have a thriving economy (as oil revenues decline), and subsistence users can have jobs without affecting wildlife, fish, or other resources,” says Dau. “With large-scale industrial development, however — as with most things in life — you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”

NOT ALL ALASKAN NATIVES, HOWEVER, are opposed to the road. Many are interested in royalty income from the mines. NANA, the regional Native corporation whose territory includes the Ambler Mining District, for example, has partnered with Ambler Metals on the exploratory drilling there. If the mines are built, NANA’s 15,000 Iñupiat shareholders will get a share of the profits, even though not all people within the tribes associated with the corporation support the project.

Then there’s the potential jobs the road and mining projects could bring, even though they might impact subsistence practices. AIDEA estimates that the mining district will create more than 3,900 direct and indirect jobs and more than $300 million in annual wages for the mines’ estimated 12-year lifespan.

a woman and a child play in a forest

April Monroe says she’s fighting for “a transition away from colonized systems” to a future where her daughter can retain access to her relatively-untouched homeland and can enjoy a slower pace of life. Photo by Jayme Dittmar.

Still, others are intrigued by the lower cost of shipped-in food that the road would ensure were it opened up for public use and the prospect of being able to afford things like ATVs, motorboats, and snowmobiles that would make their hunting and fishing activities easier.

The lure of economic opportunities in a region where they are scarce is strong. One young Native woman who grew up in one of the NANA corporation-owned villages initially told me that she opposed the road and mine for environmental reasons and hoped to possibly return to take her kids to the area to hunt and fish. But weeks later, she said she didn’t want to be quoted because she might want to return to work for the tribe one day. Similarly, after meetings with AIDEA and Ambler Metals officials over the past three years, two of the five tribal councils that had joined Tanana Chief’s Conference in challenging the project in court in 2020 have withdrawn from the suit.

If Biden gives the project a go-ahead, the tribes don’t know how long they can legally fight these battles over land, given limited time and resources. “We have dozens of ‘Ambler Roads’ going on at any given time,” says one Native person familiar with the legal battles. “It’s exhausting being the kid with his finger in the dike.”

Meanwhile, even though a final federal decision on the road is pending, Alaska has approved spending $48.8 million to study route options, conduct surveys, and begin biological, hydrological, and geotechnical field studies. AIDEA estimates the road will cost anything between half-a-billion to a billion dollars. However, it’s not clear how it will recoup this expense. The agency has proposed covering the cost by selling bonds to investors that would be paid off over time by charging annual fees to mining companies using the road. However, AIDEA has no actual contracts with the mining companies, including Ambler Metals. These companies are still prospecting the deposits.

In late October, in yet another twist, Doyon, the other Native corporation involved in the project, canceled its land-access agreement with AIDEA, citing “poor treatment” by the state. It said it did not intend to enter into a new agreement with the agency. The move raises new questions about how the Ambler Road will be built, though AIDEA has said it will proceed with the planned route with or without Doyon’s permission.

Monroe isn’t exactly surprised by AIDEA’s response. “Rolling over [the] top of people without consent is thematic to how they’re handling this,” she says. “And I think that that deserves to be highlighted.”

Monroe, who now lives in Fairbanks, 250 miles from Evansville, returns to her tribal village every summer to spend time with her extended family and harvest berries and fish. She and her husband, who is from Huslia, a community along the Koyukuk River (whose council has withdrawn from the lawsuit), have six children, including a two-year-old daughter. Their ancestral connections run up and down the Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers.

Looking at her toddler, she often sees two different futures: In one her daughter retains access to this untouched homeland and can enjoy a slower pace of life, much as Monroe did, where she can take the time to observe the simple things, watching migratory birds when they return each year, and plants waking up from their winter slumber. In the other, resource extraction camps dot the landscape, along with all the associated problems they bring, including higher rates of murder and disappearance of Indigenous women.

That is what has kept her fighting to protect these lands. “I’m trying to be a good ancestor,” she says. “This is a fight for my life to prevent my children and their homelands from becoming victims of colonization. That’s what it is — taking Indigenous lands for industrial purposes. I hope to see a transition away from colonized systems because they harm everybody.”

This feature will appear in our Winter 2024 magazine. We have published it early in light of the public comment deadline, which is December 22. Public comments can be submitted here.

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