Rule Five Mining Road Friday

I am fond of using three words to describe Alaska: Vast, wild, and free.  Another big thing Alaska is, overwhelmingly, is roadless.  There are vast portions of the state that are accessible only by air, boat, or (in winter) dogsled.  There are also a lot of small “bush” communities out there – and a lot of resources, including not only gas and oil but also metals like copper and zinc.

Some of those metals are found in an area south of the Brooks Range, and now the Biden administration is stomping the brakes on a project to build a road into an area in a work known as the Ambler Road project, which will allow not only mining for those strategic resources but also recreational access.

The 211-mile-long Ambler Road was initially approved under the previous administration, which issued a 50-year right-of-way permit to build the road just days before President Donald Trump left office.

But the project has faced strong opposition from tribes in interior Alaska as well as hunting and angling groups who argue it will hurt subsistence resources, including caribou migration patterns and some of Alaska’s most important salmon and sheefish spawning streams. The industrial access road would cross hundreds of rivers and streams, 26 miles of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and the tribal lands of several Alaska Native communities — allowing for approximately 168 truck trips a day.

The area south of the Brooks Range—a patchwork of wetlands and densely forested wilderness—is one of the largest roadless areas in North America.

The many native communities in the area initially opposed the road, but now several of them have changed course – almost certainly because of the good-paying jobs that the mining development will bring to this remote Alaska plain.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents 42 villages in interior Alaska, many of which are near the road, sued the Interior Department in 2020 over its handling of the environmental analysis, arguing that it did not adequately address impacts to their way of life. Since the lawsuit was filed, though, three of the villages have switched sides and now say they support the road because of its purported economic benefits.

There’s a fair amount to deal with here.

First, I’m inclined to give the native communities a lot of slack here.  While they seem anxious for the jobs, and justifiably so, they are also concerned for their traditional lifestyles and, yes, the Ambler Road will bring not only mining development to the area but other kinds of development as well, including tourism and recreational users.

Granted there’s a lot of money in tourism, too; the small town of Talkeetna, not too far from where I sit as I write this, is heavily dependent on tourism; it is supposedly the town on which the fictional Cicely, Alaska of the television program Northern Exposure was based, and the main street is lined with eating places and gift shops specializing in native arts and crafts, along with the usual t-shirts and so on.

Even so: The natives live there. It’s their home. Just as I would expect to have some say in any major development project in our little corner of the Susitna Valley, I expect them to have some say in any development in what has been and still is their tribal land.

Bear in mind that tribal lands in Alaska aren’t like the reservations in the lower 48.  Most are managed by tribal corporations, they seem to be much more integrated into the mainstream of Alaskan life than the reservation residents in the 48.

But none of that excuses the Biden administration’s heavy-handedness here.  If there are problems with the permitting process, address them.  If the native communities have more to say about this, listen to them.  Slamming the door on a project that could be worth a great deal to these folks, in a decision that is almost certainly influenced by urban elite “environmentalists” who will never come within a thousand miles of the affected area, is just too much.