BLM Formally Rejects Ambler Access Project

By YERETH ROSEN
Alaska Beacon
    The Biden administration on Friday took the final step needed to reject a proposed and controversial 211-mile industrial road through the Brooks Range foothills that would enable commercial mining in a remote Arctic area in Northwest Alaska.
    The U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued a document that formalized its decision, announced in April, to deny a right-of-way permit needed to build the Ambler Access Project.
    The proposed road would run from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler mining district. The road is considered necessary to make commercial mining in the metals-rich but isolated region economically feasible. The project sponsor is the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned economic development entity; the mining companies that would be the main beneficiaries are Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals Inc. and Australia-based South32, which have formed a partnership called Ambler Metals.
    In the document, known as a record of decision, the BLM cited a litany of negative impacts from the road. They include fragmentation of habitat used by the Western Arctic Caribou Herd and other wildlife, degradation of fish habitat, air and water pollution, accelerated permafrost thaw and cultural disruptions. The combined impacts would harm Indigenous communities in the road area, the record of decision said.
    “Impacts to subsistence and public health, including stress, subsistence-food insecurity, and potential exposure to toxins from the road, would disproportionately negatively affect low-income and minority populations, specifically Alaska Native villages in and near the project area that depend on the surrounding area for their subsistence lifestyle,” it said.
    Supporters of the decision hailed the step.
    “The Biden Administration’s decision today is an important step toward a future full of wild salmon, healthy people, and healthy lands and waters,” Anaan’arar Sophie Swope, executive director of Mother Kuskokwim Tribal Coalition, said in a news release.
    Environmental groups also oppose the road.
    “Today’s announcement demonstrates the Biden administration’s embrace of Alaska-sized opportunities for land protection and conservation,” said Kristen Miller, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, in a news release.
    Advocates for developing the mine expressed disappointment in the administration action. Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said the organization is “gravely disappointed,” adding that the Alaska National Interest Lands Claims Act explicitly says agencies shall grant access to the Ambler district.
    “Clearly the Administration and its agencies feel they are above the law,” Skibinski said in a text statement. “On the other hand, they’re not above hypocrisy; touting goals for domestic mineral production yet rejecting multiple proposals to develop minerals in the United States.”
    Skibinski did not say whether the association would legally appeal the decision, but said “be assured that we will not stand for this illegal and unethical action.”
    Alaska’s congressional delegation also condemned the decision. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola all support building the road. Murkowski emphasized that nine years of permitting work have gone into the project, which she said would provide access to critical minerals, development to a rural region and strategic benefits under stronger environmental and safety standards than other countries.
    “Somehow, none of that mattered to the Biden administration on the Ambler project,” she said in a joint statement with Sullivan and Peltola. “They have ignored federal law, our national vulnerabilities, and Alaska’s strong record of responsible development, all in the name of election year politics.”
    The Biden administration decision reverses an approval granted by the Trump administration in 2020. After two lawsuits were filed that sought to overturn the Trump administration approval, the Biden administration’s BLM launched a new study of environmental effects, with a focus on subsistence and Indigenous cultural values. The new study concluded that the Trump administration’s analysis understated the negative impacts of the road.
    Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, in a statement, said the Ambler decision was part of a broader Biden administration policy on environmental protection.
    “The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to manage America’s public lands for the benefit of all people. In Alaska, that includes ensuring that we consider the impacts of proposed actions on Alaska Native and rural subsistence users,” Haaland said in the statement. “Guided by feedback from Tribal Nations, Native Corporations and the best-available science, the steps we are taking today ensure these important areas remain intact for generations to come.”
    The road project has been highly contentious in Alaska.
    Supporters, including Alaska political leaders, say the project is needed for economic development and to supply copper and other minerals needed for a transition away from fossil fuels.
    Opponents cite the road’s threats to environmental resources, including the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which uses the territory. Opponents include many tribal governments and tribal organizations, environmentalists and some hunting organizations.
    Two Native corporations that previously were participants in the project have also withdrawn their support. Doyon Ltd., the regional Native corporation owned by Indigenous people from Interior Alaska, last year canceled a land-access agreement with AIDEA. And NANA Corp., the regional Native corporation based in Northwest Alaska, pulled its involvement in May, announcing it also will not renew its land-access agreement with AIDEA. Though NANA has mineral prospects that might benefit from an industrial access road, the corporation concluded that it could not support the project as planned and proposed by AIDEA.
    However, some Native organizations support the project. Among them are the tribal governments in the villages of Allakaket and Huslia, which previously opposed the project but changed their position and in 2022 dropped out of a lawsuit challenging it.
    Separately, the BLM announced its plan to continue existing protections on 28 million acres of land in Western Alaska.
    The BLM decision was detailed in a final environmental impact statement released on Friday concerning 28 million acres spread across numerous parcels referred to as D-1 lands. The name comes from a provision in Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 that set aside those lands, in a process known as withdrawal, “to protect the public interest.”
    The Trump administration had proposed lifting those withdrawals, starting the formal process that would allow mining there. The Biden administration completed the review process.
    In its final environmental impact statement, a document prepared in accordance with national environmental law, the BLM identified a “no action” alternative as its preferred policy choice for the D-1 lands, effectively retaining the status quo there.
    Tribal governments opposed the lifting of withdrawals, citing their desire to protect cultural-use areas, fish and wildlife habitat, subsistence resources and food security.
    However, the state of Alaska, Alaska’s two U.S. senators and the Alaska Miners Association, among other organizations, have supported the proposal to open those lands to development.
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https://alaskabeacon.com/yereth-rosen
 Editor-in-Chief Andrew Kitchenman contributed to this article.

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July 2004
Photo caption: Junior League All Stars will compete in a tournament in Wrangell. From left are Bryn Calhoun, Chris Scott, Sean O’Neill, Ross Venneberg, Caleb McGraw, Richard Carlos, Jacob Houston, Coby McCarty, Bryan Lovett and Daniel Erickson.

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July 1974

Photo caption: Volunteers leave the Yaw Building Library with loads of books being transferred to the new Orin and Betty Stratton Library on the Sheldon Jackson campus. SJC librarian Evelyn Bonner expressed appreciation to the community for the help.

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