Alaska agency signs a right-of-way agreement for a controversial Arctic mining road

The deal gives AIDEA 50 years to build an access road through wilderness areas — including caribou habitat — to a remote mining project.

By Yereth Rosen - January 11, 2021
Caribou from the Western Arctic Caribou Herd traverse the Noatak National Preserve in northwest Alaska in September 2012. Critics of a proposed mining access road cite impacts to the herd — and subsistence users who depend on it — as part of why they opposed the road.  (National Park Service)

Two days after it submitted nearly all the bids in a much-anticipated but industry-shunned oil lease sale for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an Alaska state agency announced an agreement intended to advance a different controversial Arctic development project.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority signed a right-of-way agreement with federal agencies for the corridor where it plans the controversial 211-mile road to the Ambler mining district in northwestern Alaska. The agreement was signed by AIDEA, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service — the latter agency because the road would cross through a section of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

The right-of-way gives AIDEA 50 years to construct the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, a gravel industrial-use-only road that would connect potential copper mines to the state’s road system. The company set to be the main beneficiary, Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals Inc., is pursuing two projects in the district that would, if developed, produce copper and a variety of other metals. Without a connecting road, Trilogy has said, the mine prospects will not be commercially developed.

In a statement, AIDEA said the agreement is an important step toward road construction.

“This right-of-way is the culmination of years of research, planning, and collaboration,” AIDEA Executive Director Alan Weitzner. “The signing of this permit is a major milestone. It’s the first step in a multi-year phase of feasibility and predevelopment. The permits are for a controlled industrial access road with stipulations that protect subsistence and environmental resources.”

“Alaskans will benefit from the Ambler Road Access Project,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in the AIDEA statement. “Responsible natural resource development like the mineral rich Ambler Mining District is key to providing high wage jobs that can support Alaskans and their families. We develop our resources in Alaska more responsibly than anyone else.”

The right-of-way agreement was one of the last executive acts of the Trump administration Interior Department. The BLM, however, had not released a statement about it as of Monday.

While supported by the governor and the Alaska Congressional delegation, the Ambler road is fiercely opposed by communities and tribal governments along its route, by environmentalists and by many budget hawks. Critics cite potential harm to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of the largest in North America, and the people, most of them Indigenous, who depend on that herd for food. Critics also portray it as an expensive boondoggle that the state cannot afford.

Interior’s approval of the project is being challenged in two lawsuits pending in U.S. District Court in Alaska. One was filed in August by a coalition of environmental groups. The other was filed in October by the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an Athabascan tribal coalition, along with some individual Athabascan and Inupiat tribal governments.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuits say the BLM and other agencies did a rushed and shoddy environmental review leading up to the decision in favor of the road. “There is so much on-the-ground work that hasn’t been done,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, one of the environmental plaintiffs.

While the project may not gain much traction in the near term, especially in light of the state’s tenuous fiscal situation, the right-of-way agreement sets up conditions for development in the future, Epstein said.

“Fifty years is a long time,” she said. “That’s a lot of time in the future to move forward with this road.”