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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Four tribal representatives say their exclusion from a Jan. 11 subsistence advisory committee meeting cast aside their concerns about a road that would cross their traditional hunting and fishing grounds.

The Dalton Highway is the only road extending north from Fairbanks to oil development facilities at Prudhoe Bay. Now a road is in the works to go from the Dalton Highway west to the Ambler mining district in northwest Alaska.

The Ambler road would open up developer Ambler Metals’ “sizable holdings” of “one of the highest-grade copper deposits known in the world.”

The 211-mile road would cut through wilderness on the south slope of the Brooks Range in interior and northwest Alaska. Villages in the area now are accessible only by boat or plane. The cost of living is high, making the gathering and sharing of food from nature a critical component of the local economy.

Related: Athabascan, Iñupiat tribes sue to halt Arctic road project - Indian Country Today

Villagers are concerned a road will open the area to hunters and fishermen from outside the region, jeopardizing their food supply. Developers note the road will be closed to the public, but locals fear a lack of enforcement will void that decision.

Developers have created a subsistence advisory committee to work out ways to minimize or eliminate impacts to wildlife.

Four chiefs – First Chief Harding Sam, Alatna Village Council; First Chief Clinton Bergman, Allakaket Tribal Council; First Chief Frank Thompson of the Evansville Tribal Council and President Brian Ridley of the regional nonprofit Tanana Chiefs Conference – wrote a letter objecting to their exclusion from the committee’s first meeting.

“Meanwhile, representatives attending on behalf of the project proponents—Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, NANA Regional Corp., Ambler Metals LLC, and others—stayed in the room, behind those closed doors. Blatantly excluding tribes from these conversations is unethical and shuts out an essential voice in these discussions. BLM (the Bureau of Land Management) must provide better oversight for these committees and mandate proper inclusion of Tribal leaders and their officially delegated representatives,” wrote the authors.

Attorneys for two of the tribes were told to leave the meeting as well as a tribal representative. “Tribes have every right to send representatives to speak on their behalf, especially considering the fact that many tribes are not traveling due to the ongoing pandemic and do not have adequate access to broadband in their communities,” the chiefs wrote.

They said being shut out of the subsistence advisory committee meeting is part of a larger problem.

“Whether or not you think the road is a good idea, it is evident that this project would fundamentally change the traditional homelands through which it passes. This is true even if you ignore the mining activity that the road is intended to enable and that the federal agencies recklessly chose to exclude from their evaluation of impacts,” the tribal chiefs said.

The chiefs said the trend set by the Trump administration is continuing under President Joe Biden, despite him having “made a commitment that respect for Tribal sovereignty and environmental justice will be hallmarks of their work.” The tribes say by okaying key permits, the Bureau of Land Management and the US Army Corps of Engineers in particular are not living up to Biden’s promises.

“The Biden administration should vacate the unlawful Ambler Road decisions, support Tribes that want to participate in good faith in government-mandated processes intended to protect Tribal interests, and stand up to those who try to silence our voices. Anything less is mere lip service and the perpetuation of age-old injustices that could well lead to the end of our way of life,” the chiefs said.

Charlene Ostbloom, communications manager for the Ambler Access Project, said of the three people who were turned away from the meeting, one was an alternate for an appointed representative who could not attend due to COVID. She said the committee had not set up a process for seating alternates.

Two attorneys, Ostbloom said, “were asked to leave because part of the requirements for those that sit on the committee is that they must reside in the communities that are located along the Ambler route. And they also must participate in subsistence and be knowledgeable about the subsistence lifestyle. And neither attorney lived in any of the communities along the route.”

She said the co-chairs also wanted to limit their first meeting to committee members and support staff so people could get to know one another and set policies on how the committee would go forward. In the future, the committee will allow guests to listen in to the committee meetings, Ostbloom said.

She also said she doesn’t think the mining project is incompatible with subsistence. Development could even stem the flow of people moving out of the villages, she said.

“You look at the schools and how they are getting smaller and smaller, and some of them are in jeopardy of being closed down because of attendance (the state requires a minimum of 10 students), because so many families are moving out of those communities due to a lack of jobs and just not being able to provide for their families,” Ostbloom said.

She said the project will provide jobs, and the potential for “great jobs,” for people living along the road’s route, close enough that they can live and keep their families in their communities.

In a prepared statement, Ostbloom said, “Input from the SAC (subsistence advisory committee), relying on the tribes’ traditional knowledge, will be an integral part of the project’s development as permitting and design work continues. The committee was established by the Subsistence Advisory Committee Working Group which included five Alaska Native Elders and two representatives from the two Alaska Native landowner regions along the approved route.”

The prepared statement also listed a number of organizations that have expressed support for the Ambler road. Those include the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, Alaska Miners Association, Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc., and Alaska’s Congressional delegation.

Ostbloom said in addition to the subsistence advisory committee, another working group is being formed to focus on workforce development.

Road developers have received major permits. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) is developing plans for the upcoming field season to submit to BLM by March 1. The field work will include identification of cultural resources and fish habitat. Construction is scheduled for 2024.

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