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State of Alaska should not be surprised that Road to Ambler met strong local opposition

Ron Yarnell
OPINION: The people who live around Bettles depend on the wild country around them for food and for a living, so it should surprise no one that they don't want an industrial road intruding on their remote corner of Alaska. Loren Holmes photo

This summer Alaska’s Department of Transportation (DOT) transferred authority for the Road to the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA). This road is one of Governor Parnell’s “Roads to Resources” projects. As now envisioned by AIDEA, this road will be a private industrial road. Originally DOT considered about a dozen alternatives including railroads, from the south, and roads to the west, toward Kotzebue and the Seward Peninsula. These alternatives were ruled out for a variety of reasons, but foremost among the reasons was price. (Some of these alternatives exceeded a billion dollars!) DOT and now AIDEA are considering only one option, the Brooks Range East corridor, which is a 225-mile-long, $430-million dollar road leaving the Dalton Highway near Prospect Creek, south of Coldfoot.

Presently AIDEA is looking at a route that leaves the pipeline haul corridor and passes through the villages of Bettles and Evansville on the Koyukuk River. These small settlements are only connected to the haul road by a winter ice road that is open between February and April. All their yearly supplies, including diesel for the village generators and gasoline for the air charter service, businesses and lodges, are either driven in during these winter months or flown in. Most of the businesses in town earn their income catering to adventure travelers, hunters, fishermen, dog mushers, river floaters, aurora viewers, small-scale miners and other outdoor types. A number of adventure guides and hunting guides operate from the area. Several lodges offer accommodations. Two air charter services fly people into the Gates of the Arctic National Park to the north and the two million acres of state land that lie along the park's southern border.

Besides jobs with the village corporation, work at the weather station, maintenance on the ice road in the winter, or working in the tourism and guiding trade, many of the people that live in these two communities hunt, fish, guide and trap. As with many bush communities, these residents are extremely dependent upon the lands that surround these communities. Every fall and winter moose and caribou are hunted to fill people’s freezers. A few folks still trap for a living. Dog mushers train for races and haul tourists for income. During the summer months, there are a few construction jobs and some people find work outside of town at small mining operations, tourist camps or on state or Native corporation projects. These are the kinds of things that support the residents of Bettles and Evansville. Those who live in this region choose this way of life because they love it. This is typical of many Alaska Bush communities.

Therefore, when representatives of AIDEA arrived in Bettles and Evansville last week to conduct meetings about the proposed Road to Ambler, they were a bit surprised by the staunch anti-road sentiment the villagers expressed. Of the 30 people that showed up at the public meeting (which is practically the entire winter-time population of both towns) only three people spoke out in favor of the road, and even these people were only in favor of the road if it benefited the local community.

When AIDEA discovered most of the people in these villages were against the road, they threatened to go around Bettles. Just how they plan to do this is anyone’s guess. The only way for a road to get to the state land on the north side of the Koyukuk River is to cross through the private lands Evansville Inc. owns, to go through the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge, or try to arrange something on Doyon land farther up the pipeline haul road, but even this would pass through the southern border of the Gates of the Arctic National Park. If the road went around Bettles, the residents here would incur all the drawbacks of a major industrial road without any of the benefits.

AIDEA had trouble explaining to the local people how this road would benefit them even if it did go through Bettles. If it is a private road, local residents couldn’t use it. If it was open to the public, the influx of people could drastically alter daily life in their small communities. How much more pressure would there be on the local moose and caribou populations? What would 300-400 heavy trucks per day hauling ore concentrate from the mines in the Kobuk do to their peaceful way of life? How would they get to their traplines if they couldn’t use the road? What would happen to the caribou if they wouldn’t cross the road to their winter areas south of the Brooks Range?

Is this what the residents of Bettles want? What do they get out of it? Is this what Alaska citizens want done with their lands in the central and western Brooks Range? In the Kobuk Valley, the “string of pearls” that international mining corporations want to develop could turn into a string of toxic waste dumps. Most of these mineral deposits are in sulfide-based rock, which is highly likely to produce acid-generating waste rock. This means the tailings from these mines may need to be treated forever, otherwise acid and heavy metals could leach into the rivers for hundreds of years. If this happens, the fish may not be able to find their way to the spawning grounds. This could mean the rich fisheries of the Kobuk River could be lost forever. Is this what the residents of the Kobuk Valley want?

What about the caribou migrations? Even today on the 60-mile-long Red Dog Mine Road, some of the radio-collared caribou on their southward migration hit the road and don’t cross it, but instead try to walk around the end of the road. Sometimes, several months later, and an extra several hundreds of miles, they may finally get to the other side of the road. Imagine the Road to the Ambler Mining District, eight times longer than the Red Dog Mine Road, bisecting the caribou migration routes between their summer ranges north of the Brooks Range and their wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range. The Road to Ambler is not the Red Dog Mine Road or the road to Prudhoe Bay. This road goes east to west directly across these migration routes for 225 miles.

Do we really want to turn the Brooks Range into an industrial zone? Do we really want to sacrifice a way of life that is supporting people now? This is a tradeoff we need to think about. In the meantime, don’t you think AIDEA would at least spend a little more than a few hours allowing the residents of Bettles and Evansville to ask all the questions they have about this project? Don’t you think they would have a little more humility when asking permission to cross private village corporation lands, rather than trying to blackmail village residents into supporting this road?

Ron Yarnell has been leading backing, rafting, canoeing and naturalist trips in the Brooks Range since 1971. He has owned and operated a wilderness guiding business for the last 42 years. He leads trips in the Gates of the Arctic National Park, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Western Arctic and other areas in Interior Alaska. He has led hundreds of trips out of Bettles down the Alatna, John, Koyukuk, Kobuk and Noatak rivers, in addition to many others. Ron owns a cabin a mile out of Bettles and lives in Fairbanks.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.