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Anaktuvak Pass residents worry proposed road would scare off caribou

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Troy Hamon / NPS

A delegation from Anaktuvuk Pass went to Juneau recently to lobby against a proposed 100-mile road from the Dalton Highway to gas fields in the remote area of Umiat.

Their message was clear – any road will further disrupt caribou herds and other subsistence food sources for a people who have survived there for thousands of years.

Andrew Hopson, a subsistence hunter and Anaktuvuk Pass resident, said the caribou that migrate through the land nearby are extremely sensitive to sound and traffic traveling on the Dalton Highway. The Porcupine Caribou Herd, which typically travels into their traditional hunting grounds near Umiat each fall, hasn’t passed through in five years, he said. The combined pressure of the road and the impact of sport-hunters who hunt and camp in the corridor near it, may well be the reason -- but no one knows for sure.

“The fall time is when the herd is the most healthy,” Hopson said. “They are prepping themselves for winter, and that’s when we depend on them the most.”

Big oil, gas deposits

A state Department of Transportation representative could not be reached by press time, a state website for the project says that exploration in the region has been ongoing for decades. In 1945, the U.S. Navy began deep-well testing of subsurface seepages near Umiat. The extensive effort  including construction of a 3,300-foot gravel airfield that allows cargo planes to land. Drilling continued for the next seven years, revealing what the state characterizes as an extensive oil field and natural gas reserve, but the area’s remote location mothballed the project in 1953.

In 2009, the state Department of Transportation performed engineering and environmental studies on potential road corridors in the region. Several routes were considered, public meetings held, and studies of area environmental impacts were done. The state estimates some 200 to 300 million barrels of oil may be stored in the Umiat area, and about 32,000 billion cubic feet of natural gas. The state now hopes to construct an all-season gravel road that would cross six major rivers as part of the Roads to Resources program. The road could also provide access to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. An environmental impact statement is due out by the end of next year, but construction of the road could be several years out.

In 2009, the state Department of Transportation performed engineering and environmental studies on the potential road corridors to the region. Several routes were considered, public meetings held, and studies of area environmental impacts were done. The state estimates some 200 to 300 million barrels of oil or more may be in the Umiat area, and about 32,000 billion cubic feet of natural gas. The state now hopes to construct an all-season gravel road that would cross six major rivers as part of the Roads to Resources program. The road could also provide access to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. An environmental impact statement is due out by the end of next year, but construction of the road could be several years out.

That’s still too soon for many residents of the area, who say their way of life is being threatened.

'Caribou is the reason we are still here'

Lillian Gordon, Naqsragmiut Tribal Council secretary and elementary school teacher in Anaktuvuk Pass, went with the delegation to Juneau. She said it’s hard to explain why the caribou herd and the subsistence life they provide are so important.

“The caribou is the reason we are still here today,” she said. “It’s more than just food. It’s in our hearts.”

Gordon said while the road might provide some jobs and some money for the 300-plus community members of Anaktuvuk Pass, that could never be enough to compensate for the loss of their subsistence lifestyle.

“Money comes and goes,” she said. “What happens when the oil is gone and our lands are raped and destroyed and we are left with nothing?”

Hopson said the community’s experience with Prudhoe Bay has taught them that while such exploration might create jobs, they typically aren’t the jobs that go to village residents.

“There are a lot of quality people from outside Alaska that have more qualifications,” he said.

Gordon said pretty much everyone, from the children she teaches to the village elders, opposes the road for fear it will scare away the caribou and bring in more sport hunters.

“The kids are aware and they are terrified,” she said. “I can’t even explain the fear in their eyes.”

Both Gordon and Hopson said they realize they aren’t going to change the minds of everyone in the Legislature.

“I try to think of the governor’s position and the some of the legislators’ positions — I want to think of it on both sides, but I have a lot of mixed emotions,” Hopson said. “It’s really hard to think of it from their point of view.”

Hopson said he’s heard from some people in Juneau that the road is already a done deal. At the least, he said, he hopes more studies will put off the road construction for a few more years.