Deep in the heart of Alaska, the proposed 220-mile Ambler Road threatens to permanently change the Brooks Range and the subsistence communities that span across it. The Ambler Road is one of many megaprojects that the state unleashed with the Road to Resources Initiative, best known for hidden agendas and high costs. Known by many as the Road to Ruin, the program is championed by mining companies who are pushing the State of Alaska to pay for a road that would give them access to copper, gold, and other mineral deposits in the area.
The Ambler Road would cut across more than twenty miles of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, located in the Brooks Range of Alaska. The nearest major airport is an 8-hour drive on a gravel highway, the Dalton. The area just south of the Brooks is a crucial migration path for three large caribou herds–the Teshekpuk, Central Arctic, and Western Arctic–and is home to healthy populations of bears, muskox, foxes, sheep, wolves and moose.
This August I spent a couple weeks in Gates with a biologist, conservationist, and a dirtbag who’s previously done restoration work with the Park Service, to better understand the issue. We traversed the Arrigetch Peaks and paddled the Alatna River, allowing us a first-hand view of the land that would be impacted. We wandered the tundra, scrambled up slippery granite peaks, and paddled one of the four federally designated Wild & Scenic rivers that is threatened.
Decisions made today will change this place forever. Politicians, thousands of miles away from the Brooks, are placating lobbyists, instead of listening to those who would be affected most.
Almost every community along the proposed corridor has expressed opposition to the road–some have gone so far as to pass resolutions against the project. These Inupiaq and Athabaskan villages see the road as a threat to their subsistence way of life, which primarily consists of caribou, moose, fish, and berries. These foods make up more than half of the diet for many communities, and the road would dramatically change this.
In conversations with Dirk Nickisch, who owns an air logistics and flying service, and John Gaedeke, a second-generation lodge owner in the Brooks, one thing became clear to me: many small businesses in the area would be replaced with one bang-and-bust industry. Almost all of these small businesses rely on the pristine wilderness to draw new business. John, a developer and conservationist, said “there is no moratorium to guiding or showing someone the wilderness. I can sell someone seeing a mountain a thousand times, but you can only sell a mountain itself once. This road would kill tourism.” The Ambler Road would likely open up expansion projects to Umiat, Nome, and other remote communities, making it easier for large mining corporations to extract Alaska’s natural resources in the future.
Ben Sullender, the resident biologist on the trip who works for Audubon Alaska, fed us information as we passed through different ecosystems. Of the many implications of the mega project, one of the most consequential is the effect on Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which has already seen its population decline from 500,000 to 201,000 in the last 13 years. The proposed road runs perpendicular to the migration pattern of the herd, possibly blocking the herd from its historical calving ground. Tim Fullman, a Phd. and Wildlife Ecologist at The Wilderness Society, is concerned about access to key resources like nutritious food, noise impacts on nearby species, the effects of dust on surrounding vegetation, and an increase in hunting could all affect the caribou populations.
Project supporters estimate the cost of the Ambler Road to be nearly $500 million. Third party researchers say that the Ambler Road would be much more, somewhere between $1.7 and $2.4 billion. Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic Program Director at The Wilderness Society, is highly concerned with a lack of funding, especially in a state with a small tax base like Alaska. She pointed out that the reason most Alaskan mega-projects have failed in the recent past is funding, leaving half-finished roads as permanent scars on the land.
The takeaway–we have the chance to safeguard an area that has never been changed. We have an opportunity to stand up against potentially permanent change. All we have to do is not touch this. The Arctic functions just fine without us.
Read more about the Brooks Range Council.