Friday Facts: AK Native Leaders Support Ambler Access Project

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Alaska Native leaders support Ambler Road
Shane Lasley, North of 60 Mining News, May 5, 2023

A growing and increasingly vocal group of Alaska Native leaders are joining the 49th State’s delegation in Washington DC on pressing the Biden administration to carry out a timely review of the proposed 211-mile road to the Ambler Mining District in Northwest Alaska.

“We are asking lawmakers in Washington to listen to the voices of the people who have lived on these lands and stewarded Alaska since time immemorial,” said Naasri Fred Sun, president of the Shungnak Tribe in the Ambler District.

Sun was among several Alaska Native leaders that traveled to Washington to support the fair review and timely completion of a supplemental environmental impact statement for the Ambler Road.

These Alaska Native leaders joined representatives from Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), which is permitting and building the road, and Ambler Metals, which would pay tolls to AIDEA for using the road to transport supplies and ore concentrates to and from future mines in the Ambler District, to meet with regulators and lawmakers in the nation’s capital.

In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, both of which fall under the Interior Department, approved the federal authorizations needed to build this road formally known as the Ambler Access Project.

Roughly a year ago, however, BLM notified AIDEA that it had suspended its Ambler Road authorizations for further review.

The federal land manager cited a lack of adequate consultation with Alaska Native tribes and evaluation of potential impacts the road might have on subsistence uses as reasons to remand the previously issued authorizations.

The Alaska Native leaders that traveled to Washington, however, see the Ambler Road as a means of lowering the cost of living in the region and providing good-paying jobs that will make it more affordable to stay in the area and carry out traditional activities.

Remote villages in the region currently depend on costly air transport for their goods.

Wilmer Beetus, chief and mayor of Hughes, said residents of the northern Alaska village must pay as much as $15 per gallon for gas to fuel their snowmachines, ATVs, or boats. The high cost of fuel and other goods, coupled with little in the way of jobs, makes it tough for many residents to stay in Hughes.

“The Ambler Access Project is an opportunity to create high-paying jobs within the region so that our Tribal members and their families can remain in their communities,” he said. “Further, a subsistence lifestyle is a vital aspect of our lives connecting Alaska Native people, families, and communities with the land, animals, and fish. The Ambler Access Project will responsibly co-exist with the subsistence needs of families and communities in the region.”

Walking in two worlds

The comments by Chief Beetus during his trip to Washington reflect a growing sentiment among tribal leaders that economic development in their region and continuing a traditional lifestyle go hand-in-hand.

“We believe it’s important to recognize that we now walk in two worlds – continuing to respect and value our culture and subsistence lifestyles while also embracing the opportunity for economic growth and stability for our people through higher education and jobs,” said Gordon Bergman, second chief of the Allakaket Village Council.

Allakaket, a village near the eastern end of the proposed Ambler Road, was originally against the development of the transportation corridor. Earlier this year, however, the tribal councils of Allakaket and Huslia unanimously voted to withdraw from a lawsuit against a federal decision to issue permits for the Ambler Road. The Native Village of Kobuk Traditional Council has also withdrawn from the lawsuit.

These communities determined that the potential benefits of the Ambler Access Project outweigh the impacts, and they could have a positive impact on both by sharing their subsistence needs and traditional knowledge.

“It is important that we begin a productive dialogue with the project proponents and have our voices heard during this process,” said Bergman.

Northern Alaska boroughs weigh in

In addition to tribal leaders, Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs have put their combined political weight behind an effort to push Interior Department to expediently reapprove a road to the Ambler District.

Representing a combined 19 Alaska Native communities across 135,500 square miles of Alaska’s northernmost reaches, Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs agree with many of their residents that responsible development and traditional values are not mutually exclusive.

“Resource development, when carried out in a way that respects our subsistence lifestyle, culture, and the wellbeing of the land has the potential to create progressive economic and employment outcomes for the people of our communities,” said Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Dickie Moto.

In their joint resolution, the boroughs said the Ambler Road and mines would enable has the potential to create more than 8,700 direct, indirect, and induced construction and operation jobs that would pay nearly $700 million in annual wages.

Some of these jobs would come from the development of Valhalla Metals Inc.’s Sun deposit, a large copper-zinc-silver-gold project that lies along the path of the proposed road that extends onward to Ambler Metals’ Arctic and Bornite mine projects about 35 miles further west.

“It is great to see and hear the support from the Northwest Arctic Borough and North Slope Borough. These are two local home-rule governments representing the people of these communities. Their support for responsible resource development must be heard,” said Valhalla Metals Chairman Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse. “Valhalla looks forward to the federal government’s expedited supplemental EIS process and re-instatement of the permits necessary to advance the Ambler Access Project.”

The BLM currently anticipates publishing a draft supplemental EIS by mid-year and a final SEIS, conducting final pre-decision consultation with Alaska Native Tribes and Corporations, and issuing a Record of Decision, all within the fourth quarter of 2023.