State investment agency approves $500K for summer work on Ambler Road project

A map of the proposed Ambler Road project (Map courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority Board voted Wednesday to put up to $500,000 this year into the controversial Ambler Road project in the Brooks Range.

The road has been a lightning rod for controversy for years, pitting the desire to expand business and mining interests in the state against concerns over impacts to the environment and subsistence.

The 211-mile road would lead to the Ambler Mining District, northeast of Kotzebue, which has deposits of copper and other metals that companies want to truck out.

On Wednesday, board members heard public testimony by phone from people across Alaska.

Michael Jesperson, of Anchorage, told the board that Alaska is too dependent on oil, and needs to develop other industries like mining.

“We need to look to the future, not just now,” he said. “My kids need jobs when they graduate college. I would like the economy to improve and the value of my house to go up. None of that’s going to happen in a bad economy.”

To get to the mining district, the road would start near the Dalton Highway and cross the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Environmentalists have expressed strong opposition to building a road through a national park.

John Horner, of Kobuk, told the board he’s fearful that building the road could impact access to caribou and other sources of subsistence hunting.

“This is going to affect my kids and their kids’ futures as well,” Horner said. “We cannot eat money. One word that comes to mind with this Ambler Road is ‘genocide.’ You guys are slowly going to kill off our culture, our way of life, which defines who we are as Indigenous people.”

The Army Corps of Engineers completed its final environmental impact statement for the project at the end of March, and says the road could impact air and water quality, wildlife migration and erosion.

As AIDEA has weighed financially supporting the Ambler Road, a new factor has come into play in the last several months: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The AIDEA board has received criticism from some over what its funding as some businesses across the state struggle to stay afloat.

At the board’s meeting in March, it heard overwhelming opposition to giving money to the Ambler Road. During that meeting, the board approved putting $35 million into the Arctic Infrastructure Fund, while simultaneously designating the Ambler Road as an Arctic project.

On Wednesday, just over half of those who testified opposed the road project.

“I implore you, do not go ahead with this expenditure for the benefit of overseas-headquartered mega-corporations,” Palmer resident Loren Karro said. “Put the money toward helping Alaskans survive these extraordinary times.”

While many village governments have come out in opposition to the road, regional borough governments have taken a more measured approach.

In testimony on behalf of the Northwest Arctic Borough, Siikauraq Martha Whiting said the borough supports AIDEA putting the money toward the project, but emphasized the importance of reaching out to villagers.

“We request that you continue building relationships with stakeholders within the Northwest Arctic Borough, especially in the communities of Ambler, Shungnak and Kobuk, as this project is in their homeland and in their backyard,” Whiting said.

The $500,000 in spending approved Wednesday will come from the Arctic Infrastructure Development Fund. It will be matched with $500,000 from Ambler Metals LLC, a Fairbanks-based subsidiary of Trilogy Metals, based in British Columbia, that’s been developing a prospect in the mining district.

AIDEA says the money will pay for aerial photography of the proposed route, public outreach and the hiring of an external program manager.

Editor’s note: Martha Whiting serves on the board of directors for KOTZ Broadcasting.