Alaska Native corporation ending involvement in controversial Ambler Road project

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - May 9, 2024
The NANA Regional Corp. office in downtown Anchorage is seen on May 8, 2024. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
The NANA Regional Corp. office in downtown Anchorage is seen on Wednesday. The Native corporation, citing dissatisfaction with management by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, is ending its involvement with the Ambler Access Project. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

NANA Regional Corp. supports mining development in the region, but it objects to the way the road project is being managed by the state entity sponsoring it

The regional corporation owned by the Iñupiat people of Northwest Alaska said Wednesday it is severing its ties to the Ambler Access Project, the controversial road that a state agency proposes to build through the Brooks Range foothills to allow commercial mining in an isolated Arctic area.

NANA Regional Corp., based in Kotzebue, said it will not renew a land-use permit for the project that it granted to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. AIDEA is the state-owned corporation that is seeking to build the 211-mile road through to the Ambler Mining District, the site of deposits of copper and other valuable metals. The land-use permit, which has a three-year duration, will expire this year, NANA said in its statement.

AIDEA’s management of the project led NANA to break away from it, the corporation said.

“This decision reflects unmet criteria, insufficient consultation, and a lack of confidence in the project’s alignment with our values and community interests. NANA upholds a rich legacy of responsible resource development in our region, guided by a commitment to protect and advance our Iñupiat way of life. NANA established specific criteria required to consider supporting AAP, including controlled access, protection of caribou migration routes and subsistence resources, job creation and community benefits. These criteria remain insufficiently addressed by AIDEA,” the company’s statement said.

The NANA decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Ambler Access Project.

It has been criticized by environmental and some regional tribal organizations as threatening the region’s environment and the natural resources upon which residents of Indigenous communities depend. Most prominently, the road project is portrayed as a dire threat to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of North America’s largest caribou herds. The project is opposed by numerous tribal governments and organizations representing people who live along the proposed corridor, including the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an Interior tribal consortium. Opponents have cited the disruptions to caribou that roads are known to cause, among other concerns.

Citing those and other concerns, the Biden administration last month announced that it planned to deny a right-of-way permit for construction of the Ambler Access Project. The decision against proceeding with the project was contained in a final supplemental environmental impact statement released on April 19 by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

But the road and the mining it would enable are supported by Alaska political leaders and some other Native organizations.

The Alatna River, seen on Aug. 26, 2014, winds its way through a long valley in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. (Photo by Sean Tevebaugh/National Park Service)
The Alatna River, seen on Aug. 26, 2014, winds its way through a long valley in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The proposed Ambler Access Project would put a road crossing over the Alatna River just downstream from Gates of the Arctic. (Photo by Sean Tevebaugh/National Park Service)

Supporters tout the potential economic benefits, not just in the Ambler region but along the entire corridor, where there are other mining claims and potential development sites. And they have made a pro-environment pitch for the project, arguing that it would provide supplies of copper and other minerals needed for the transformation away from fossil fuels.NANA, which owns mineral-rich land in the region, still wants the option of developing mines there, the corporation said in its statement. Despite its break with AIDEA, the corporation said it disagrees with the Biden administration decision on the road.

“Our Elders fought to retain our ancestral lands in the Upper Kobuk, emphasizing both their subsistence value and mineral resource potential. It is our responsibility to steward these lands for future generations,” Gia Hanna, chair of the NANA board of directors, said in the statement. “All decisions about development on our lands need to be made by and with our people at the table. We intend to vigorously defend our right to pursue resource and infrastructure development in alignment with our values.”

“For more than 40 years NANA has successfully developed our resources alongside trusted industry partners in ways that respect our way of life and advance our region as a whole,” said John Lincoln, NANA president and CEO. “While NANA is disengaging from the AAP, we maintain our interest in future mineral development in the region that aligns with the expectations of our shareholders.”

NANA, one of the for-profit corporations created by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, has been heavily involved in mining. The Red Dog mine, one of the world’s largest zinc producers, has for decades been an economic pillar for the corporation and for the Northwest Arctic region. The mine is located on NANA land and operated by Teck Resources Ltd.’s Alaska unit.

NANA owns some of the lands in the Ambler district and has a partnership with Ambler Metals LLC., the joint venture that is exploring mineral deposits there. Ambler Metals would be the prime beneficiary of the road. The joint venture was formed by Trilogy Metals Inc. of Canada and South32 of Australia.

The partnership with Ambler Metals remains intact, said Kaylee Devine, NANA’s director of communications.

“NANA will work with Ambler Metals to reassess the future of Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects,” Devine said by email. “NANA recognizes the significant value and economic potential the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects has for the region and to provide critical minerals for the energy transition. However, any resource development project and its associated transportation methods must align with necessary criteria to ensure protection of subsistence and our traditional way of life. The Ambler Access Project, as proposed, does not meet NANA’s criteria.”

NANA’s statement said the BLM decision appears to be illegal, violating a provision of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that guarantees future mining-road access through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The road plan advanced by AIDEA includes 26 miles through Gates of the Arctic.

Devine said NANA takes issue with other aspects of the BLM decision. The supplemental environmental impacts statement was inaccurate in the way it portrayed the performance of the Red Dog mine, and those inaccuracies might affect future development decisions, she said. Additionally, the BLM document “appears to overreach in its authority,” possibly limiting activities on NANA’s land, she said.

Antlers and a skull from a dead caribou are seen on Aug. 1, 2014, on the ground in the Oolah Valley of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. (Photo by Cadence Cook/National Park Service)
Antlers and a skull from a dead caribou are seen on Aug. 1, 2014, on the ground in the Oolah Valley of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Much of the debate over the Ambler Access Project concerns potential impacts to caribou habitat and the welfare of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd. (Photo by Cadence Cook/National Park Service)

The Biden administration decision against the road reversed a 2020 decision by the Trump administration to grant a right-of-way allowing construction of the Ambler Access Project. In response to lawsuits filed by numerous Native and environmental organizations, the Biden administration suspended the previous administration’s right-of-way and launched the supplemental environmental impact statement. That new analysis found that the Trump administration had vastly understated the road’s expected impacts to caribou, fish and other resources important to Indigenous culture, as well as to permafrost.Randy Ruaro, AIDEA’s chief executive, said NANA’s decision effectively removes an exploration mine site on NANA land from the project. That mine site covers 500,000 to 750,000 acres, Ruaro told the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

“But that still leaves nearly 600,000 acres in state mining claims that will benefit from the road and several other large mines. So we’ll respect NANA’s decision and we’ll bend the road to the north and we’ll stay on state land and avoid NANA land,” he told the committee.

He called the decision “unfortunate” but that AIDEA will continue to push for the road.

Also still pushing for the road is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. At a U.S. Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, she said she is considering cutting the Deportment of the Interior’s budget in response.

She told Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the hearing that the Ambler decision was part of a Biden administration pattern of unfairly blocking resource development in Alaska. Other decisions in that pattern concerned blocking oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and new rules limiting oil development in the sprawling National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, Murkowski said.

“Why are we treated like one big national park and wildlife refuge, instead of a state that has balanced the need for development and the desire for conservation?” Murkowski asked Haaland.

“Right now, I’m in a position, I’m in a place, where it’s really hard for me to discuss the budget requests,” Murkowski said. “All I can think about is: If Interior is going to use its funding to make these kinds of decisions that penalize my state in this way, then I feel like what we need to be doing here is looking for ways to cut the department’s budget until the department gets the point, and returns to following the law and the balance that is reflected within it.”

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