Federal and state officials sign right-of-way permit for controversial Ambler Road

The community of Ambler along the Kobuk river as seen from the air
Aerial view of Ambler and the Kobuk River in the summer. (National Park Service)

In the latest step in a longstanding dispute between mining advocates and environmentalists, federal and state entities signed a 50-year right of way permit for the controversial Ambler Road project on Wednesday.

The permit was signed by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and Alaska’s state-owned development corporation — the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. It allows the privately-owned road to pass through lands controlled by the federal government.

A company called Ambler Metals LLC, a subsidiary of British Columbia-based Trilogy Metals, hopes to use the road to access copper, gold, zinc and other mineral deposits in the area, in cooperation with the NANA Regional Corporation.

The road would stretch 211 miles from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District east of Kotzebue, along the Kobuk River. Environmentalists are most opposed to the part of the project that would cross Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

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Bridget Psarianos is an attorney for Trustees for Alaska, which has filed numerous lawsuits on behalf of conservation groups opposing the project.

“Putting a gravel road through that area is going to really significantly and negatively impact the environment in that region — the water quality, air quality, wildlife and the communities that are in that region,” Psarianos said.

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Subsistence advocates have also filed lawsuits over the road, fearing the project would impact the migration of caribou, a staple resource for Northwest Arctic’s majority Iñupiaq population.

In the environmental assessment released last March, BLM officials flagged potential impacts to local water and air quality, as well as to wildlife migration and erosion.

The project has received millions of dollars in state support. In a statement, Gov. Mike Dunleavy described future efforts in the mining district as responsible resource development that is “key to providing high wage jobs to Alaskans and their families.”

The right-of-way permit came the same day AIDEA made the majority of oil lease bids on land tracts in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Psarianos with Trustees for Alaska described these recent decisions as rushed.

“What we’re seeing right now is just a last-ditch, desperate effort by the Trump administration to rubber-stamp as many permits as it can before it leaves office,” Psarianos said.

Psarianos described the decision this week as one of many procedural steps in a lengthy process to get the road built. Construction would still be several years away at the minimum.

Wesley Early is a reporter with Alaska Public Media, covering municipal politics and Anchorage life.

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