Alaska Native vision for the future: Self determination

By: Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

A group of caribou from the Western Arctic Herd swim across the Kobuk River during fall migration in 2017. Much of the debate over the Ambler road and the associated mine development concern impacts to the herd, one of the largest in North America. The Biden administration has determined that the road would cause unaccepable harm to caribou and salmon habitat, among other resources. (Photo by Matt Cameron/National Park Service)

Citing what they characterized as unacceptable risks to wildlife habitat, water quality and the Native communities that depend on natural resources, the Biden administration on Friday rejected the controversial plan to put a 211-mile industrial road through largely wild areas of the Brooks Range foothills.

The decision came in a supplemental environmental impact statement released by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a branch of the Department of the Interior.

The document selected the “no action” alternative as its policy choice for the Ambler Access Project, meaning the BLM does not intend to issue a permit allowing the road to cross through lands managed by the agency.

The BLM also made final a set of new rules that codifies and strengthens environmental protections in the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, or NPR-A, on the western North Slope.

The reserve, the largest federally owned land unit in the nation, allows for multiple uses; roughly half is available for oil leasing, while other areas have been preserved for their importance to wildlife and Indigenous culture. The NPR-A has been the site of new oil discoveries, including the massive Willow deposit, which ConocoPhillips is developing into a field that is expected to produce up to 180,000 barrels a day after production starts in 2029.

In a statement, President Joe Biden said both actions are part of a broader policy intended to “meet the urgency of the climate crisis, protect America’s lands and waters, and fulfill our responsibility to the next generation of Americans.”

“Alaska’s majestic and rugged lands and waters are among the most remarkable and healthy landscapes in the world, sustaining a vibrant subsistence economy for Alaska Native communities,” Biden said in a statement. “These natural wonders demand our protection. I am proud that my Administration is taking action to conserve more than 13 million acres in the Western Arctic and to honor the culture, history, and enduring wisdom of Alaska Natives who have lived on and stewarded these lands since time immemorial.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in another statement: “Today’s announcements underscore our commitment to ensure that places too special to develop remain intact for the communities and species that rely on them. There is no question, using the best available science and incorporating Indigenous Knowledge practiced over millennia, that these decisions will help biological, cultural, historic and subsistence resources, safeguarding the way of life for the Indigenous people who have called this special place home since time immemorial.” 

The BLM’s decision on the Ambler Access Project reverses an action by former President Donald Trump’s administration. The Trump Department of the Interior granted a right-of-way allowing the project in 2020.

Litigation followed the Trump administration decision, and in response to the lawsuits the Biden administration launched its supplemental environmental impact statement process.

That report, issued in draft form in October and final form on Friday, found that the Trump administration had vastly understated the road’s expected impacts to wildlife habitat, permafrost, water quality and the resources that Indigenous people need.

In its final supplemental impact statement, the BLM concluded that none of the development alternatives would be safe for the environment or subsistence resources.

The Ambler Access Project has been deeply divisive in Alaska.

It would provide the transportation access necessary to conduct commercial mining in the remote Ambler region of Arctic Northwest Alaska, where several exploratory mine sites hold copper and other valuable metals.

It would cross through sensitive terrain, notably the range of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of the largest caribou herds in North America. It would also cross rivers and streams important to salmon runs.

The road proposal is sponsored by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned development agency that intends to issue bonds to finance construction.

The company that would be the main beneficiary is Ambler Metals LLC, a joint venture of Trilogy Metals Inc. of Canada and South32 of Australia.

Most political leaders, along with business organizations and some Alaska Native groups are enthusiastic supporters, citing potential economic benefits of the mining activity it would enable.

Environmentalists, hunting groups and several Alaska Native tribal governments and organizations oppose it, citing threatened degradation of the environment and the lifestyles of people dependent on it.

Some critics also question the economic soundness of a state-financed road to benefit private corporate interests.

Reactions from both sides

On Friday, road supporters blasted the decision while opponents celebrated.

In a statement, Ambler Metals vowed to continue to fight for the road.

The administration had made a politically motivated decision, said the statement. “In doing so, the Department of the Interior is depriving Alaska Native communities of thousands of good-paying jobs and millions of dollars of badly needed tax revenues and economic investment, as well as preventing the United States from developing a domestic supply of minerals that are critical for clean energy technology and national security,” Kaleb Froehlich, Ambler Metals’ managing director, said in the statement.

The decision overlooks “Alaska’s proven track record of safe and responsible production of minerals” and it violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, added. “We remain committed to this important project and will continue to push forward using all possible avenues,” he said in the statement.

 Criticism also came from various industry groups.

 “By denying access and the necessary right-of-way across federal lands, the BLM’s action essentially abandons these critical minerals, undermining not just regional economic growth but also national interests,” Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said in a statement issued jointly by business organizations. “This decision exposes a glaring hypocrisy: the Biden administration has repeatedly acknowledged the need for minerals and has touted sourcing them domestically.  Unfortunately, it appears the Administration is content to rely on cobalt sourced through child and slave labor in Africa and China rather than supporting ethical, sustainable mineral production in Alaska.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation, including its lone Democratic member, criticized both Alaska policies announced on Friday.

“Closing off NPR-A is a huge step back for Alaska, failing to strike a balance between the need for gap oil and natural gas and legitimate environmental concerns, and steamrolling the voices of many Alaska Natives in the decision-making process,” Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, said in a joint statement issued by the three-member delegation. “The Ambler Road decision is premature, as real conversations among stakeholders in the region are ongoing. Alaska has a wealth of natural resources that can be responsibly developed to help boost domestic manufacturing and innovation — in the end, it should be up to Alaskans to decide what they want developed in their regions.”

 Both of Alaska’s U.S. senators on Thursday characterized the administration’s then-pending decisions as illegal.

 But road opponents said the decision was correct.

Among those hailing the news were the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of Interior Alaska tribes and a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration approval.

“This is a historic win for the Alaska Native community. It reaffirms that our voices matter, that our knowledge is invaluable, and that our lands and animals deserve protection,” Brian Ridley, chief of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, said in a statement.  “The Biden Administration’s choice to reject the Ambler Road Project is a monumental step forward in the fight for Indigenous rights and environmental justice.”

Frank Thompson, first chief of the Evansville Village Tribal government – also a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the road approval — had a similar message.

“Today is a happy day. Today is a day that our future looks bright without the threat of 168 trucks driving by per day, without the increased pressures on our subsistence resources and imminent adverse risks to our traditional way of life and sacred Cultural Resources,” Thompson said in a statement. 

The Brooks Range Council, a group formed in 2012 to fight the project, celebrated as well. “Frankly, I am elated that the robust environmental safeguards Alaska is known for worked to stop this disaster before it could start,” said John Gaedeke, the group’s chairman and a second-generation guide in the region. “The Biden Administration assembled a team of agencies that saw what all of us in the region identified as a cultural, environmental and financial Chernobyl of a proposal.”