BLM holds scoping meetings on Ambler Road in Kotzebue
Before the arrival of the white people in the upper Kobuk River region, the Inupiaq prophet Maniilaq foretold the growth of a large city on the Ambler River where the village of Ambler now stands. He said that when something that the white skinned people value is discovered in the ground, a city would grow at that place.
The State of Alaska is now planning to build a road to metal deposits in what is called the Ambler Mining District.
The ambitious project to build a 211-mile industrial road from the Dalton Highway into the Northwest Arctic Borough’s Ambler Mining District ground its way forward last Wednesday with a Bureau of Land Management scoping meeting in Kotzebue. The meeting was one of a series held in communities potentially affected by the proposed road. The purpose of a scoping meeting is to determine the appropriate contents of an Environmental Impact Statement, EIS for short. Scoping meetings were planned for 12 communities.
The presentation and discussion was organized by the BLM because some of the proposed route of the road passes over land managed by them. The road begins at the Dalton Highway at mile 161, extends west along the foothills of the Brooks Range to the south bank of the Ambler River. Fifty-one percent of the land it crosses is managed by the State of Alaska, 24 percent by the federal government and 15 percent is under the control of two Native corporations.
Only a handful of citizens attended the Kotzebue scoping meeting to give their opinion. First to speak was Seth Kantner, author of the acclaimed novel “Ordinary Wolves.” Kantner was raised in a traditional sod house on the upper Kobuk and still lives in the area.
“I see it as one of the worst things that could happen to my homeland,” said Kantner. “I see it as breaking trail for a lot of other mines, not just the copper mine which is directly upriver from where I live.”
Susan Georgette has lived in Kotzebue for over 30 years. She and
her family have a camp on the upper Kobuk and have spent a lot of time there. She voiced concern that the villagers would gain little economically while facing increased competition for subsistence resources from recreational hunters. She pointed out that the road does not connect to any of the villages. She also questioned whether a mine would actually be built and suggested an analysis of Trilogy Metals’ operational history would be in order.
“Trilogy Metals is basically the same company that was called NovaGold when it developed the Rock Creek Mine in Nome,” she said. “This mine only operated for two months before it was shut down and it hasn’t operated since. I have very little faith in Trilogy Metals’ intent to actually operate a mine.”
Citizens who attended the meeting discussed the opening of the road to sport hunters and wondered about the new airstrips being built and who would be able to use those. Alaska’s commercial hunting industry is likely to press for access once the road is built. This will add pressure to a declining caribou population which local people depend on for subsistence.
“NANA is neutral on the road,” said John Lincoln, Vice President of Lands for the Native corporation. “We don’t support or oppose the road but we do support the EIS. That’s the position the full board has settled on. They’re neutral on the road but we support the EIS in a large part because it involved so much community input from our shareholders and will drive a lot of our decision making.”
The Northwest Arctic Borough, a co-operating agency in the project along with the Army Corps of Engineers, supports the construction of the road.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Patrick Savok, Chief of Staff at the borough. “People are more accepting to the road coming in because of incoming goods, services, products, fuel and minerals. Of course this is going to be a private road, so it’s just going to be for the transportation of minerals at this point.”
“Sure it’s going to be intrusive to see something like this come through,” said Savok. But he pointed out the costs of basic necessities. Gas and ammunition for hunting are not cheap. Without the road people live in isolation in Third World-like conditions. “It’s inevitable in my mind that it’s coming that way. Whether they like it or not.”
The plan calls for a 211-mile all season two-lane gravel road with industrial access only. Bridges, material sites, maintenance stations, airstrips and related infrastructure and utilities are all part of the plan. Vehicles using the road would be trucks hauling mineral exploration and development equipment, supplies, fuel and ore concentrate.
The Ambler Mining District is described in technical writings as “an 80-mile long trend of volcanogenic massive sulfide, or VMS, deposits occurring along the southern slope of the Brooks Range from north of Ambler east to the Beaver River.” Two large deposits have been identified by drilling analysis. The Arctic Deposit, ranks as one of the largest and richest VMS deposits on the planet. Metals include copper, zinc, lead, gold and silver. The Canadian exploration company NovaGold Resourches Inc. began exploring the deposits, then its spin-off NovaCopper continued and is now doing business as Trilogy Metals. The Bornite copper deposit, also known as Ruby Creek, was explored in 1977 by Kennecott Mining Company. They found zinc, cobalt and Germanium in addition to large amounts of copper. Kennecott drilled 92 core holes and NovaGold drilled 43.
When the US Congress passed The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, ANILCA, in 1980, it recognized the importance of the Ambler Mining District and made provision for building a road to the area. A section of the law reads “Congress finds that there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road) and the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection.” ANILCA text includes instructions for issuance of the right of way.
That right-of-way is being sought by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, better known as AIDEA. AIDEA is the State of Alaska’s public corporation with the mission to encourage industrial development and it facilitates financing for development. AIDEA sees the Ambler Road as an opportunity to access the state’s natural resources and stimulate economic development in a region with a very high unemployment rate as well as high costs for basic necessities.
While some welcome the road and ensuing industrial development, there are those who oppose it. Mining has a history in Alaska of bringing change to the local populations. Some of that change is good and some of it is problematic. Those opposed to the road see the negativity in penetration of the wilderness by miners while those who like the idea of change see economic opportunity and a better standard of living for the residents of the area.
The three villages which will be most affected by the road, should it be built, are Shungnak, Kobuk and Ambler. The total population of the three is about 675, 95 percent of them are Inupiat. A high percentage of the people speak Inupiaq and live a subsistence lifestyle. The caribou of the Northwest Arctic Herd are the cornerstone of their food supply. They also depend on moose, whitefish, chum salmon and other animals. There is little room for competition for these resources with urban hunters. The price of gas, some years as high as $12 a gallon, makes the hunt for migrating animals costly. When migration routes are disturbed by outside forces, such as aircraft transporting sport hunters, the caribou can suddenly be out of reach of the villages.
The project is now at the state of collecting scoping comments and feedback. The BLM encourages comments from citizens. The website www.blm.gov/AmblerRoadEIS can accept them or they can be faxed to (907) 271-5479. Email and mail addresses are on the website.
“At the end of December 2019 we would have a final environmental impact statement and at least 30 days later we would issue a record of decision whether or not to issue the right of way and if so with what conditions would be involved,” said BLM representative Katherine Wood.
Representatives from Trilogy Metals were not present at the meeting. The company is headed by Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, President and CEO. Trilogy Metals Inc. announced on Monday that Willie Iggiagruk Hensley has been named to the company’s Board of Directors.