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Sierra Club: Alaska's Umiat road among worst US transportation ideas

Alex DeMarban
Loren Holmes photo

None other than the venerable Sierra Club has stepped up the fight against the state's plans to punch a 100-mile gravel road through the Arctic wilderness to open oil and gas fields on the edge of the United States' Alaska petroleum reserve.

The national conservation group has listed the so-called Foothills West road, extending 90 miles from the Dalton Highway to the summer camp at Umiat, among "the 50 best and worst transportation ideas" in the nation . . . three guesses which group the Alaska road ended up in.

Some Alaska Native leaders and governments in the region have spoken out against the concept, saying it would slash through caribou migration routes and alter Native subsistence hunting, the Sierra Club says.

Umiat is a former U.S. Air Force and Navy base that decades ago supported oil exploration for the military in the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Now a refueling stop for aircraft and a summer camp for scientists, Umiat is located on the Colville River about 150 miles southeast of Barrow. Much of the proposed road would follow the Itkillik River heading north and west off the Dalton Highway near Galbraith Lake.

"The purpose of the project is to allow year-round access for exploitation of oil and gas resources in the area, including access for heavy equipment and 'industrial traffic in arctic conditions', according to the Environmental Impact Statement,” the Sierra Club writes.

The group says its list is meant to help the country move "beyond petroleum." Good projects included public transportation efforts, such as new bike paths and subway expansions. Bad projects that should be stopped included developments that threaten natural areas and animal habitat.

"Our goal is to identify examples of the best and worst projects; this is not a definitive review by any means," Sierra Club spokesperson Eddie Scher wrote in an email to Alaska Dispatch. "We worked with Sierra Club State chapters to compile a list of projects that typify the good, bad and ugly of transportation funding."

The Umiat road is one part of Gov. Sean Parnell's Roads to Resources initiative, a group of projects which has been criticized by environmental groups. The state has sunk tens of millions of dollars on studies of Umiat, but the full cost is pegged at somewhere around $500 million. Critics say it's likely that the Umiat road won't lead to new development, in part because tapping commercial oil in the region is so costly.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex@alaskadispatch.com