A Chance to Stop the Ambler Road in Alaska’s Brooks Range

Narvak Lake near the headwaters of the Kobuk River. The proposed Ambler Road would pass just north of this lake. Photo George Wuerthner.

While most attention of conservation groups has focused on proposals to drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, a perhaps bigger threat to Alaska’s wildlands comes from the proposed Ambler Road. The Ambler Road would access the Ambler Mining District near the headwaters of the Kobuk River along the southern slope of the western Brooks Range in Alaska.

The Trump administration pushed through a rapid and flawed Environmental review of the proposed road, and the Record of Decision issued in 2020 approved the road’s construction. Fortunately, the Biden Administration has remanded the decision to permit the Ambler Road back to the Bureau of Land Management for additional environmental review giving the public another chance to halt this destructive project. I have previously written about the Ambler Road and its threats to the region.

The problem for anyone opposing the Ambler Road is that the Ambler Mining District is a “world-class” deposit of copper, containing ten times higher grade ore than any other known deposits in the world.

Map of Ambler Road route. Purple is Gates of the Arctic NP, blue is state land, Brown is native lands. 

Most of the mining claims are owned by NANA, an NW Alaska Inuipat tribal corporation.In 2011, NANA and Trilogy Metals formed the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects (UKMP), a partnership that brings together Bornite and a number of other copper-rich prospects on NANA-owned lands with the world-class Arctic deposit and dozens of similar volcanogenic massive sulfide prospects located on state, federal and patented mining claims in the Ambler Mining District.

NANA wants to develop the Ambler mines as it has done for the Red Dog Mine (a Zinc mine) north of Kotzebue. Red Dog is considered the most toxic mining operation in America. Profits from the Red Dog mine is a significant source of funds for NANA.

Although the value of the Ambler ore deposit has been known for decades, the cost of access has always impeded development.

Where Ernie Creek joins the North Fork of the Koyukuk at the Gates of the Arctic named by Robert Marshall. The Ambler Road would lie just south of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and cross the park’s southwest corner. Photo George Wuerthner.

The Ambler Road would solve this problem. The proposed road would run from the Dalton Highway (Pipeline Haul Road) 211 miles across the southern edge of the Brooks Range, passing through federal (Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Kobuk Wild and Scenic River), state land, and native private holdings.

The proposed project crosses state lands (61%) and Native corporation lands (15%) but also crosses federal lands (24%) managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS). Conservation groups and some tribal groups, in particular the Tanana Chiefs, oppose the mine.

The Athabascan people of the Koyukuk region will receive no financial benefit from the mining operations and just the negatives. The Tanana Chiefs represent the Athabascan people of the Koyukuk River Basin which the road will cross. They are mostly concerned about potential impacts the road could bring to hunting and fishing activities.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), passed in 1980, created many new national parks like the Gates of the Arctic National Park. ANILCA had a clause authorizing the road. “Congress finds that there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road), and the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection.”

The word “shall” almost makes the road’s approval guaranteed.

Alaska is a big proponent of the mine project and road. Much of the route crosses state-owned land, which would facilitate permitting. However, since the road would also cross federal land, the road project must be approved by the BLM to move forward.

The Northwestern Alaska caribou herds have declined. Research shows that roads can be a barrier to caribou migration. Photo George Wuerthner. 

The Ambler Road, if built, will pass over 3000 creeks and 11 major rivers and create a potential barrier to migration for the western Arctic caribou herd, which is currently in steep decline. The herd once numbered an estimated 500,000 individuals and most recently is estimated to be 188,000.

Research done at the Red Dog Mining area has demonstrated that roads can negatively impact caribou migrations. For example, a study of the Native-owned Red Dog Mine Industrial Access road north of Kotzebue found that just four vehicles an hour affected the migration of 30% of collared caribou or approximately 72,000 individuals of the 2017 population estimates.

In the meantime, two-state permits currently open for comments include AIDEA’s request for a 50-year exclusive easement on state lands and another for a site-specific land use plan. The comment period has been extended to April 1, meaning there’s still time to let the state know that no further permits should be issued. You can send comments to the state at this address.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy