BLM Intends To Block Mine Access Road Through Gates Of The Arctic National Park

NPCA officials applauded news Friday that the Biden administration would block construction of a mine access road across Gates of the Arctic National Park/NPCA

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management intends to block a mine road proposed to cross Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska, determining that there’s no evidence the proposed mine could be economically viable.

The announcement Friday comes just days after the Kobuk Wild and Scenic River, which flows through the park and also would be impacted by the so-called Amber Road, was declared one of the country’s top 10 endangered rivers by American Rivers because of the proposed road.

Trilogy Metals, Inc., a Canadian company that has worked to see the road built, believes the resulting mine would bring high-paying jobs, training, and educational opportunities to a region suffering from high unemployment and lack of economic opportunity. The 211-mile-long road if approved would be built from the Dalton Highway to reach a mine site near Ambler, a tiny village believed to sit near one of the world’s richest copper deposits. 

But the BLM, in a supplemental study of the project and previously approved permits, determined that impacts to Native tribes, wildlife, and other natural resources outweighed any envisioned benefits from the mine, according to the National Parks and Conservation Association.

“Everyone who has ever visited or dreamed of visiting Alaska’s national parks should be celebrating today,” said Theresa Pierno, NPCA’s president and CEO.  “When the threat loomed of a 211-mile road cutting through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and dozens of native communities, people from across Alaska and across the nation spoke up. And they were heard.

“By rejecting this mining road, President Biden and Secretary Haaland have shown that they know how important it is to safeguard America’s treasured lands and respect the communities that have relied on and protected them for generations. Defeating the Ambler mining road took a courageous coalition and years of hard work from people who care deeply about the lands and communities of the Brooks Range. This victory shows that no matter how challenging the fight, parks have the power to unite us all. We are indebted to the Tribal leaders, community advocates, business owners and thousands of park supporters who never wavered in their determination to protect the lands, waters, wildlife and people of the Brooks Range.” 

On Tuesday the Canadian company behind the project, Triology Metals, LLC, announced that it had heard the Biden administration might block the project.

“We are stunned to hear reports that BLM may deny the Ambler Access Project, which received full federal approval four years ago and would enable safe and responsible domestic production of minerals that are critical for our national security and clean energy technologies,” said Kaleb Froehlich, managing director of Ambler Metals, which Triology owns in a 50-50 split with South 32 Limited. “If true, this decision ignores the support of local communities for this project, while denying jobs for Alaskans and critical revenues for a region where youth are being forced to leave because of a lack of opportunity. A denial would also undermine the promise made to Alaskans in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which guaranteed a right-of-way for this crucial project. We strongly urge BLM to reconsider what would clearly be an unlawful and politically motivated decision that goes well beyond the narrow set of issues the courts agreed to allow the agency to address.”

Triology officials said they would consider their next steps.

The area encompassing the Ambler mining district provides habitat for salmon, whitefish, and sheefish, and serves as a crucial migration corridor for Alaska’s largest caribou herd, the Western Arctic herd. The Kobuk River flows out of the Endicott Mountains and Walker Lake in the Brooks Range and across a broad valley that is one of the largest continuous forested areas in the park and preserve, the National Park Service notes on the park’s website. Approximately 20 miles of the proposed road would cross Park Service lands in the Kobuk River unit of Gates of the Arctic National Preserve. The remainder of the route traverses U.S. Bureau of Land Management, state, and Native Corporation lands.

The BLM in 2020 granted a right-of-way for construction of the road, which would be used primarily to access the mining district. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority had been pushing the road as part of the proposed Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project. However, lawsuits have tied up the project.

Two years ago a legal challenge was brought by NPCA, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Winter Wildlands Alliance. In the filing, the organizations said the land-management agencies that approved the road failed to do their due diligence in safeguarding the environment. They said the road, along with crossing streams and rivers, “would permanently fill over 2,000 acres of wetland.”

The lawsuit described a litany of issues, maintaining that the road’s construction would require gravel pits to be mined every ten miles to provide roadbed, that “maintenance stations and camps” would be built along the way to support vehicles and crews, and that the path goes through permafrost as well as “areas with sulfide minerals that have the potential to cause acid rock drainage.”

While the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act requires that right-of-way access be permitted across Park Service lands for this project, the plaintiffs alleged that guidelines set down by ANILCA for such projects were not adhered to. The lawsuit also noted that under Section 206 of ANILCA, all Park Service lands in Alaska created by the act were withdrawn from “all forms of appropriation or disposal under the public land laws, including location, entry, and patent under the United States mining laws, disposition under the mineral leasing laws.”

However, a subsection of ANILCA states that, “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.”

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