With a decision on Ambler looming, the Kobuk River makes a list of endangered rivers

Four caribou swim across a calm river with yellow grasses, trees and mountains in the background.
Caribou cross the Kobuk River on their fall migration. (Photo courtesy Nick Jans)

Growing up, China Kantner spent half the year on the Kobuk River, at her family’s camp near the village of Ambler.

“In the fall time, we would go upriver, wait for the caribou to go through, pick berries, maybe get a couple of pike, dry some pike while we were there,” she said.

The Kantners would spend winters in Kotzebue and come back upriver in the spring in time for geese and caribou.

Kantner is a member of Protect the Kobuk, a group of 700 people, mostly residents of Northwest Alaska. They’re fighting to block development of the Ambler Road — also known as the Ambler Access Project — a proposed 211 mile industrial road that would cut through the Kobuk River’s watershed to access copper and zinc deposits.

For many people in the region, the river is a source of clean drinking water and a habitat for the animals they depend on for food, like salmon, sheefish, waterfowl and caribou.

“This is totally a food security issue,” Kantner said. “We want to protect what we have and the animals and plants that we rely on.”

On Tuesday, the environmental nonprofit American Rivers released its annual list of 10 “endangered” U.S. rivers — rivers facing immediate threats from climate change, pollution and development. The Kobuk is number eight on the list.

“Our most endangered rivers report is really highlighting a river in crisis, that’s at a crossroads,” said Sarah Dyrdahl, Northwest Region Director for American Rivers.

The Ambler mining district is said to hold millions of pounds of copper, zinc, cobalt and other metals that are increasingly in demand for the production of clean energy technologies.

“They’d be coming in and destroying this last pristine land, not only in the United States, but in the world,” said Clarence Putyuk Wood-Griepentrog, a lifelong resident of Ambler. “If we need copper, we need zinc, there are mines down [in the] States. They’re already on a road system. Go to those guys.”

Three men in winter gear stand on a frozen river, gathered around several fish pulled out of a hole carved into the ice.
Woody Griest, Sam Jones Jr. and Clarence Wood-Griepentrog pull qausriluk (broad whitefish) out of the frozen Kobuk River in Ambler. (Photo courtesy China Kantner)

Wood-Griepentrog is Inupiaq and has commercially fished for chum salmon in Kotzebue sound going on eight seasons. He said he’s concerned about the road interrupting caribou and bird migration and pollution coming downstream from the mine threatening salmon, sheefish and other species.

“Everything’s connected here. Our watershed is our lifeline. If that water gets contaminated we’re all doomed.”

Ambler Metals spokesperson Shalon Harrington wrote in an email that the company “recognizes and fully appreciates the cultural and ecological importance of the Kobuk River for the Northwest Arctic and its people and remains committed to the highest level of environmental protections for the eventual development of any mines in the Ambler Mining District.”

While no protections come with the endangered status, Dyrdahl said it helps to bring attention to rivers that are facing an imminent threat, “where there’s an opportunity for action in the next year.”

In the Kobuk River’s case, Dyrdahl and other advocates are eyeing an upcoming decision on the Ambler Road.

The New York Times and Politico reported Tuesday the Biden administration will soon deny permits for the road, which passes through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

Even so, activists are preparing for a long fight. The road has support from Alaska’s congressional delegation and the state-owned development bank known as AIDEA, who argue the state has guaranteed right of way across federal land under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

Kantner sees parallels to the decades-long legal battles over Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay.

“People in that region have been fighting Pebble Mine for a long, long time,” Kanter said. “We have a lot of work to do, regardless of what the decision is.”

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Kavitha here.

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