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By Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Several tribes have filed suit in federal district court in Alaska over a proposed road they say would adversely impact their way of life, spirituality and the wildlife they depend upon for food.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference represents 37 Athabascan tribes in Interior Alaska. It filed the lawsuit Wednesday, along with five Koyukon Athabascan and Kobuk Iñupiat tribes in Northwest and Interior Alaska.

Alaska is a vast state with few roads. Only one, the Dalton Highway, extends north into the Arctic. It connects the North Slope with highways leading to other parts of Alaska as well as to the lower 48 states. It was built as a gravel haul road for oil and gas development and initially was closed to the public.

A state-owned corporation, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, plans to build a gravel road to connect the Dalton highway to an area 211 miles to the west where precious minerals were discovered in the 1950s. Exploration shows the Ambler mining district is rich with copper, zinc, silver, gold, and lead. The new road would open the region to traffic from Anchorage, Fairbanks and the lower 48.

On July 23, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Transportation Department issued, and the Interior Department signed off on, the decision to OK the proposed Ambler road project

“Villages along the proposed Amber road would be the most impacted, and they would get the least amount of benefit from the mines themselves,” said Tanana Chiefs General Counsel Natasha Singh, Athabascan.

She said the proposed Ambler road would open the “entire region, which is massive — hundreds of thousands of acres — to a few different mining claims that are extremely large.”

“In the very least, we're asking that the tribal governments’ voices are heard in the process, that their tribal communities are considered in a meaningful way in the process, and that the tribal concerns are addressed in the permitting process,” all of which she said agencies have failed to do. Singh said federal agencies also “didn't consider the cumulative effects of the road and all of the mines.”

Tanana Chiefs Conference Chairman Victor Joseph, Athabascan, said the decision on whether to construct the Ambler road has “huge implications” for the region, as it would lead to “multiple mining projects in the area which could harm the health of the people and wildlife resources and potentially open the entire country to easy access from the road system.”

Singh noted the region’s remoteness raises the cost of food shipments, which makes villagers highly reliant on hunting and fishing. She said villagers’ subsistence needs weren’t properly considered.

Although the state says the road would be limited to mining traffic and would operate for only 50 years, critics say it most likely will become a public road open in perpetuity. Mine supporters have expressed hope that the road will lead to jobs for generations to come.

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Villagers fear the area will be overrun with people taking fish and game for sport, and residents harmed by social impacts of a mining boom and bust. They’re also concerned the road and traffic will destroy habitat and affect the well-being of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, an important food source for 53 subsistence villages, as well as other fish and game.

In their court filing, the tribes said their communities are intimately connected with and dependent on the area’s “cultural landscapes, historic districts, ethnohistoric resources and traditional cultural properties.”

“They depend on them for their very identities, spirituality, intergenerational learning, social cohesion, and sense of purpose and meaning,” the filing said. “Diminishing or destroying such historic properties is tantamount to diminishing or destroying the communities themselves and their fundamental identities as Tribes and Indigenous peoples.”

In a statement, the First Chief of the village of Huslia, Carl Burgett, Koyukon Athabascan, said, “This road could change life in our region more than any other single decision in history, and yet the people most affected by it have lately been left out.”

The tribes and other critics said while the state permit application said the road will include 29 bridges, 2,900 culverts, airstrips, and 44 gravel extraction sites, it didn’t provide details, making discussions of potential impacts “speculative and generic.”

The road would cross lands owned by Doyon, Limited, the Alaska Native for-profit regional corporation for Interior Alaska. 

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In April, Doyon wrote to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, saying, "we find it necessary to remind AIDEA you have no deal with Doyon, Limited for the portion of the road AIDEA proposes to cross Doyon lands near Evansville. AIDEA has never even presented a written proposal to Doyon for such access, much less a written proposal or detailed information regarding the right of way. As such AIDEA and its contractors do not have permission to enter or cross Doyon lands to conduct any field work in the summer of 2020, or at any time." The state agency has since said it is in talks with Doyon.

NANA, the Alaska Native regional corporation for Northwest Alaska, is partnering with Ambler Metals on mineral exploration in the Ambler mining district while working with the state to ensure subsistence is protected, impacts are minimized, and to maintain communications with communities. In the 1980s, in a similar project, the Alaska development authority put $160 million into a road, port and storage facilities that enabled NANA to create one of the world’s largest zinc mines.

The tribes’ suit comes a day after nine environmental groups filed suit. The environmentalists’ suit said the road “would slice through one of the longest wildlife migration paths in the world, cross nearly 3,000 rivers and streams, dam tundra wetlands, and interrupt traditional Alaska Native ways of life.” The road would cross a national park that was created to preserve its wilderness values, and open the door for an open-pit copper mine in an area with two federally designated wild and scenic rivers.

They said the project will adversely impact “one of our planet’s last ecologically intact landscapes,” and “interfere with one of Earth’s greatest land migrations, of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.”

Potential economic growth

The Alaska development authority said the Ambler mining district holds one of the largest undeveloped copper-zinc mineral belts in the world. Agency board chair Dana Pruhs, in a statement, said, “This long-sought development of the road and mining district represents tremendous potential for economic growth, diversification, and job opportunities for Alaskans, along with revenue expected to the state and local governments for decades.”

According to the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, mine developer Trilogy Metals Inc. has identified about 9 billion pounds of copper, 3.6 billion pounds of zinc, 628 million pounds of lead, 77 million pounds of cobalt, 58 million ounces of silver and 770,000 ounces of gold at two potential mining sites.

In the federal decision issued in July, the state said the mine would create more than 68,000 jobs, generating more than $5 billion in wages and $1.3 billion in state and local revenues. It would also lower fuel and food costs and facilitate installation of fiber optic cables for internet service, the state said.

The Alaska development authority has poured tens of millions of dollars into assessments and planning for the Ambler road even though, in 2014, independent economist Greg Erickson identified it as one of several big-ticket state projects with costs that outweigh public benefits. Erickson and the environmental groups’ lawsuit criticized the project for using public funding for a road for the sole use of private mining interests.

The Anchorage Daily News reports the state has spent nearly $27 million on the road over the past 10 years, and in March set aside another $35 million for the project. The development authority director told the corporation’s board another $50 million would be needed before construction could begin. The price tag for the road itself is an estimated $520 million. The corporation expects to recoup those costs with tolls from the mining companies that would use the road.

On top of those expenses comes the cost of building an open-pit mine, which would be borne by mine developers. A 2016 Interior Department report said the estimated capital cost for the mine in 2013 was $717 million, with total direct project costs of $476.3 million and average annual operating costs of $63.93 million for the 12-year life of the mine.

While the report’s authors estimate the pre-tax net value of the Arctic Deposit at $927.7 million, the state said the road would also facilitate development of other prospects.

Lesli Ellis-Wouters, Alaska Bureau of Land Management communications director, said the agency stands by the environmental review underlying the decision to open the road while meeting requirements of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

“Our commonsense actions are lawful and based on the best available science,” Ellis-Wouters said in a statement.

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Updated to add a link to the Doyon letter, and to correct a misspelling.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Like this story? Support our work with a $5 or $10 contribution today. Contribute to the nonprofit Indian Country Today.