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Ambler Road Would Harm Subsistence, Environment, Foes Say; Backers Tout Jobs

Tim Ellis/KUAC

About 70 people turned out Thursday night for a meeting in Fairbanks to talk about the proposed Ambler Road project. That’s the 211-mile two-lane gravel roadway the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is proposing to build from the Dalton Highway to a mineral-rich site near the village of Ambler, in the northwest corner of the state. Backers of the project say it’ll create jobs and other economic benefits for the region and the state. Opponents say it’s a fiscal boondoggle that’ll bring pollution, disrupt habitat and harm subsistence hunting and fishing.

The crowd in the Wedgewood Resort Borealis Ballroom grew boisterous as they waited for the meeting on the Ambler Road Project to begin. Michelle Moses, the second chief of the Alatna Tribal Council, said she came to share her concern that the project would harm the land around her community.

“We want to protect this pristine environment,” she said.

Next to Moses was Harold David, second chief of the Allakaket Tribal Council. He came to tell federal officials conducting the so-called scoping meeting that the road the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA, wants to build will reduce the number of moose and caribou his community needs to subsist.

“Yeah, I get 100 percent of my food out of the land,” David said. “And clean water is very important.”

Julia Mickley with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, says those are common concerns that have been voiced repeatedly by Native people who’ve spoken during meetings held this week and earlier this year.

“It is time for AIDEA and the state to listen to the people and stop the project,” Mickley said. “People are very concerned about impacts to subsistence and their way of life.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Bureau of Land Management Planning and Environmental Coordinator Project Lead Laurie Thorpe explains the project and scoping process as representatives of agencies involved in the process look on. At table, from left: Linda Hasselbach and Greg Dudgeon, National Park Service; Melissa Riordan, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Audra Brase, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Tim La Marr, BLM; John McPherson, HDR (EIS contractor).

Others at the meeting worried about AIDEA’s plan to pay for the $350 million project and the $10 million in annual maintenance and operations sts. Anna Plager is a Fairbanks resident who lived in Ambler back in the 1970s. And she worries the state might get stuck paying the tab.

“AIDEA would be on the hook if the mining companies build it and then for some reason they can’t afford to maintain the road or whatever,” Plager said. “Who’s responsibility would that be? It would still be on the state. And it would come out of our pockets.” 

Most of those at Thursday’s meeting expressed similar concerns. But several others told the panel of federal officials they support the road and the proposed copper-mining project that it would lead to. Including Wilmer Beetus, who lives in Hughes, a village on the Koyukuk River about 50 miles southwest of Allakaket.

“We are for the Ambler Road,” he said. “We’re pro-development. I think it’ll create a lot of jobs for our people. There’s a high unemployment rate out there, and it’ll help our community very much.”

Credit BLM
AIDEA's proposal to build the 211-mile Ambler Road includes an alternative route to the south that would add about 26 miles to the road.

And Dave Prusack of Fairbanks says he thinks the issues raised by project opponents will be allayed through state and federal responses to the comments provided during the scoping meetings that are held as part of the federal Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, process.

“I’m confident that in the EIS process, a lot of the concerns that people were concerned about and talking about are going to be addressed,” he said.

Seven more scoping meetings on the road project are scheduled, including tonight’s in Wiseman and Monday’s in Anchorage. After Thanksgiving, meetings will resume in western Alaska communities, including Kotzebue and Ambler, through December 12th. The BLM will continue accepting written comments 'til the end of January.

That input will be used to generate a draft Environmental Impact Statement around March of 2019, a final EIS at the end of 2019 and, possibly, a final decision in early 2020.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.