Northwest Alaska: Where what we’ve lost could still be saved

Associated Press/Mark Thiessen
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland addresses reporters during a news conference on April 21, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. Her visit included a trip to King Cove, where a land exchange would allow a proposed road for mining to run through a national wildlife refuge.

For decades, Alaska has pushed the short-term lure of mineral extraction over the protection of globally significant conservation areas. Now it is the Biden administration’s turn to make decisions that could shape the future of the largest and wildest state in the union. We are watching.

During Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s recent visit to Alaska, I spoke with her about one of the most pivotal public lands decisions the Biden administration will make: a proposed 211-mile private industrial mining road, which would slice through Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

The industrial corridor is euphemistically called the “Ambler road” and would cross nearly 3,000 streams and rivers, bisect the north-south migration corridor of the Western Arctic caribou herd, and permanently fragment one of the last large, intact landscapes in the U.S. — and indeed, the world. The road’s sole purpose is to open the door to industrial-scale extraction in the heart of this landscape. The State of Alaska has made unsubstantiated claims about the profitability and safety of this currently nonexistent mining district, as described in a recent third-party report commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

Despite strong opposition from local tribes, community members, and conservation groups including the NPCA, the road was approved in the summer of 2020. Right-of-way permits were issued by the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service during the last days of the Trump administration. 

With 20 million acres of parklands, Northwest Alaska contains nearly a quarter of all the lands in the National Park System. Across those lands migrates the Western Arctic caribou herd, which has been central to the traditional ways of life for more than 40 tribes throughout the herd’s 100 million-acre range.

During the community meeting with Secretary Haaland, I commended the Interior Department for its recent acknowledgement of the failures in tribal consultation and cultural resource assessments in the Ambler road permitting process. This is an important first step. However, I am among the many Alaskans who believe that Interior’s right-of-way permit suspension for the road and promise to revisit a limited set of issues are not enough to safeguard the region from potentially serious impacts.

As Eva Dawn Burk, an indigenous food sovereignty expert at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, originally from Nenana, stated recently, “Consultation does not equal consent.”

The Department of Interior should revoke the permits and conduct a new analysis that fills in the many information gaps and procedural failures for the original process that extend beyond tribal consultation.

Even as Interior acknowledges legal errors, Alaska is pushing forward with permitting activities on state lands along the corridor. The state economic development authority submitted applications for easements and permits with the state Natural Resources Department over the past several months. There was passionate opposition to the project expressed by many Alaskans at the recent public listening sessions on the proposed easement.

Even if Interior suspends the leases, the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to come to the table. The Corps approved the wetlands permit for the project, which would dump gravel roads over clear-running rivers and streams. 

Despite these problems, Alaska is continuing with extensive “pre-construction” field activities on non-federal lands using $30 million in approved funds towards this $1.4 billion project. Activities such as drilling, overflights and creating field camps for outside workers could cause lasting harm to this rare and remarkable landscape. I asked Secretary Haaland to take action to prevent any disturbance activities along the corridor, including this summer and fall.

It is clear that we do not yet know enough about the potential lasting, landscape-scale impacts of this project to allow Alaska to move forward with it. The National Parks Conservation Association and Tanana Chiefs Conference recently published a new report on Alaska mining spills that shows the risks for toxic spills at Alaska’s largest mines have been underestimated for three decades.

Secretary Haaland can lead and show what it means to care for wildlife, wild lands, and the people who rely on them. She can safeguard the resilience of Northwest Alaska and the Western Arctic caribou herd in the face of climate change. Interior should take this opportunity to act before we all learn how much we have lost.

Alex Johnson is the Alaska Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. He lives on Dena’ina Lands in Anchorage, Alaska. 

Tags Ambler Road project Biden Deb Haaland Department of Interior Gates of the Arctic National Preserve Mining Northwest Alaska

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