Strip mine may not help Helpmejack area

Around AlaskaApril 7, 2012 

In February I took a snowgo trip a hundred or so miles east of Kobuk, along the south side of the Brooks Range. My traveling companion and I had an old wall tent and a toy woodstove. Nights got down as low as minus 50. The snow was waist-deep -- which in the end came in handy for burying our machines at night (so they'd start in the morning).

The spruce trees there grow thick and close together; the rivers are wiggly and have timbered cutbanks, with overflow under the snow to keep things exciting. And of course the wolverine are not easy to get photos of -- they have everywhere to hide.

All of my life I saw Helpmejack Creek and Helpmejack Hills on the map, wondered about the origin of the name and imagined the place. As a kid, as far as I knew even Clarence Wood who had hunted and traveled all over this land, hadn't been there. The local bush pilots, Dan Denslow, Dave Rue and Tony Bernhardt, probably had flown over the area but I never asked.

Now, my hat is off to the people of the Alatna and Koyokuk and that country. That's hard-traveling land. Perfect, actually, for reminding me of how lucky we are here at home.

Along the Kobuk River where I grew up -- and on the coast too -- there's a nice mix of open tundra, trees, mountains and big rivers, which makes for a beautiful landscape and also makes it easier to travel than in many other parts of Alaska. Of course I mean traveling where I prefer to be -- places without roads.

Actually, that wild country east of Kobuk is in Gov. Parnell's cross hairs. On the top of his wish list is a road to the Ambler area, to be completed in five years, he hopes. One price tag I've heard: $1 billion.

The Road To Riches, I think they're calling it. I guess depending on your perspective you could call the plan a different name. Like the Plenty Penny Highway. Or Greenback Alley.

Speaking of green, I wonder what number would be greatest: the number of dollar bills spent to make the road, or the number of those green spruce trees they'd have to doze aside?

Regardless, our governor sure is right on -- this region is fabulously rich. There's nowhere like it on earth. Giant sheefish. Arctic char. Salmon. Grayling. Half a million caribou flowing here and there. Moose. Dall sheep. Musk ox. Bears. Clean water. Blueberries.

Oh. Wait. He's not dreaming about berry picking.

Parnell and the big mining companies and corporations are after more conventional riches -- the mountain of minerals east of Ambler. Actually, many big mountains of copper, gold, silver, lead, zinc -- some of the richest deposits remaining on Earth. The ridges along the upper Kobuk, along the south side of the Brooks Range, are stacked with their kind of treasure.

All sorts of people have dreamed of access to this region. For decades Frank Murkowski fought to get a road built. Now, NovaGold has taken the lead trying to get at that wealth.

What's not so cut and dried is exactly what a Plenty Penny Highway would mean for local folks -- those living where the road, uh, terminates.

Nobody sinks a billion dollars into hundreds of miles of forest and tundra just to be nice to little villages. That's not how the world works. The people and dump trucks and machines would come to take something away. That IS how the world works.

With this plan, the villages of Kobuk, Shungnak, Ambler and those farther downriver too would suddenly find themselves playing host to a giant sulfide deposit mine, in their backyards -- directly upstream on their traditionally bountiful and unpolluted river.

There's a ton of talk about jobs. High-paying jobs. Those jobs are already showing up here, and with those jobs are workers coming from Outside. Last summer the mail planes were ferrying them up to Kobuk. People from this region too are getting jobs, making good wages.

There's virtually no talk about the devastating pollution that these big mines cause, especially the long-term acid drainage and leaching toxic metals they leave behind, which end up in rivers. Such pollution issues are commonly discussed about the Pebble mine, but for some reason not about this large mine slated for the Ambler area..

There is whispered concern in the villages about what comes with such a road -- when local people look down it from the opposite direction that the governor is looking, that is.

Me, I'm concerned. As a commercial salmon fisherman, photographer, gardener, and lifelong subsistence hunter -- not to mention being born and raised along that river -- I see this land as too valuable to mess up. Far too valuable to mine.

But, that's just my opinion. Certainly a lot of people see it exactly the opposite.

Maybe the positive thing to do is consider this all a great opportunity.

A great opportunity for local people to stand together and shout NO! (like the Point Hope people did when the U.S. government wanted to vaporize their coast with atomic bombs) and with that action show the state of Alaska and the world once and for all how valued subsistence truly is to the people of this region.

Or, this could be an equally great opportunity for local people to open the gate and welcome the rest of America to their world. A road and mine combined would mean a mega-project, thousands of jobs -- for thousands of Americans. It would be good for the economy, so to speak. A road could allow people from Ambler and other villages to drive all the way to Fairbanks and beyond, and people from as far away as Miami to drive to Ambler!

Speaking of the Helpmejack, and thick trees and overflow and hard travel, a road could also mean easier access to fabulous new hunting and fishing grounds for any number of the more than 300 million citizens of our nation, folks who aren't comfortable on snowmobiles and can't afford to fly here, but certainly do own Fords and Chevys and Dodges.

Me, if I had a vote, I'd go with that first option. I'd do whatever I could to protect this priceless homeland, this unpolluted piece of the planet, with clean wild rivers, with clean wild meat and clean wild fish you can trust to eat. (No pink slime in your dried meat here!)

Even if I owned the entire Ambler mine myself, at the worst scenario I'd try to put off messing with it for another 25 or 30 years -- in case by the year 2042, clean, clear water happens to be a hundred times more valuable than copper and gold. Which, depending on your perspective, might already be true.

Anyway, I started off writing about the Helpmejack Hills, wild and rich country, where I can't help imagining some long-ago traveler with very cold feet, reaching out a hand for some assistance.


Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives with his wife and daughter in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

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