Caribou, access concerns vs. mining’s economic promise — BLM releases public input on Ambler Road

A map of the proposed Ambler Road project. The Bureau of Land Management has just released a summary of the public comments on that project. (Graphic Courtesy of HDR for the Bureau of Land Management.)

The Bureau of Land Management received thousands of public comments on the controversial proposed Ambler Road during the scoping period for the project, which ended in January. The BLM released a summary of those comments this week.

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The road, which is proposed by the state, would begin at the Dalton Highway and run over 200 miles west, along the southern edge of the Brooks Range. Proponents say it’s needed to develop the Ambler mining district.

Tim La Marr with BLM said the agency received input from people on all sides of the issue.

“I was impressed with the range of comments that we got,” La Marr said. “Comments from the mining industry, comments from environmental groups, a lot of comments from the tribes… comments from people throughout Alaska and people in the Lower 48 as well.”

La Marr said that of the 7,000 or so written comments, most were form emails. But over 800 were unique messages, many with substantive suggestions for issues that BLM should consider as they assess the impacts of building the road.

Some of those comments argue the road will lead to job growth and economic benefits for the state. Others raise concerns that it would disrupt the Western Arctic Caribou Herd’s migration, or enable more drugs and alcohol to enter rural communities.

A topic that came up often in the comments was who would have access to the road. The state says the road will only be permitted for non-public, industrial use. But a number of people who commented questioned the state’s ability to keep the road closed to the public, especially over the long term.

“A lot of those comments stem from the concern that if it is opened up to public use, then that opens up a huge area in Alaska that sport hunters and fishermen can start to… use those resources at the expense of subsistence uses,” La Marr said.

The comments will help the agency develop an environmental impact statement for the project. That assessment will underpin BLM’s decision on whether to allow the road to be built on federal land.

The state is funding the federal environmental review process. The legislature appropriated funding for the project in the past, but Governor Walker has only allowed a portion of that to be spent so far.

BLM says the state has provided funding through the end of the scoping phase of the Environmental Impact Statement process. To complete the EIS, the state will need to provide BLM with additional funds.