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Business/Economy

Trump administration takes step toward development of 200-mile mining road in northern Alaska

The Trump administration on Friday released draft studies required before a 200-mile industrial road can be carved through northern Alaska wilderness to a mineral-rich region.

Conservation groups quickly derided the project as a costly “private driveway” for mining interests that deficit-choked Alaska can’t afford.

The Bureau of Land Management said it’s analyzing an application from a state agency, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, for a 50-year right of way for the road across federal lands.

The two-lane road would branch off the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks, travel west over permafrost to the Purcell Mountains and end not far from Ambler and other villages.

AIDEA says the road would encourage mineral extraction in the Ambler Mining District, characterized as one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper-zinc mineral belts, according to AIDEA’s project web site. The area has been explored for decades but is little developed because of the lack of access, the state agency said.

An AIDEA spokesperson could not be reached for comment Monday.

The National Park Service also on Friday released a draft environmental and economic analysis of the project. About 20 miles of the road would slice through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. A 1980 federal law requires that "right-of-way access be permitted across NPS lands for this project,” the National Park Service said.

The Wilderness Society has long listed the proposed road among the costly megaprojects Alaska has pursued for years without success. The group said Friday that more than $20 million has been spent on the corridor, and that it would cross 2,900 streams and 11 major rivers.

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group, representing communities and groups that depend on the large herd, voted in 2018 to oppose the road out of concerns it could hurt the herd and food security, its summer 2019 newsletter says.

Trustees for Alaska called the road a “state-funded gravel private driveway,” according to a statement from the group. It said the administration’s rushed timeline for public comment will hurt local residents trying to analyze the reports and respond.

AIDEA has proposed a road that would be closed to the public. It has said a private-public partnership could get the road built, with the costs of construction paid back through road tolls. AIDEA used that plan successfully for a road to the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska, one of the world’s largest zinc mines, according to the project web site.

Trilogy Metals Inc. development site in Northwest Alaska. (Photo courtesy Trilogy Metals Inc.)

One beneficiary of a road would be Canadian mining company, Trilogy Metals, which holds mineral leases in the region.

The road would allow “the exploration and development of the Ambler Mining District and our Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects specifically,” said Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, president of Trilogy Metals, in a statement posted online Monday. On Monday, the company’s stock was up 10 percent over two days.

Route alternatives proposed by AIDEA would cost more than $500 million, BLM said. Construction over four years would support more than 2,700 jobs directly.

Conservation groups argue the road’s cost would be much higher because of the area’s remoteness and complications with building over permafrost.

AIDEA says a scenario involving operations at four potential mining sites could support thousands of jobs, adding about $1.1 billion in state revenues from mining license tax revenues, mineral royalties and corporate income taxes.

Lois Epstein, an engineer with The Wilderness Society, said it’s way too early to know the potential value of mineral development in the region.

“They are definitely speculating with their highest hope for revenue,” she said. “Given our financial situation, industry itself should pay for the road.”

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