Doyon calls Alaska agency’s approval of $35 million for mining road amid pandemic ‘foolish’ and ‘troubling’

Alaska’s largest private landowner on Tuesday blasted a state agency for using an emergency meeting centered on COVID-19 economic concerns to set aside $35 million for a controversial industrial road project in Northwest Alaska.

Aaron Schutt, president of Alaska Native corporation Doyon Limited, told the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority in a letter that using the coronavirus to approve funding for the 200-mile road to the Ambler Mining District was improper.

Doyon finds it "troubling that AIDEA invoked the coronavirus pandemic to justify funding this unauthorized road on an emergency basis,” Schutt said. "We sincerely hope that AIDEA did not intentionally raise Alaskans’ hopes for jobs that it cannot currently deliver.”

Karsten Rodvik, a spokesman for the agency, said on Thursday that board members wanted money set aside for field work this summer, which requires planning and contracting with Alaskans starting now.

“This transfer of funds is directly aligned with AIDEA’s statutory directions and the authority given AIDEA by the Alaska Legislature over the decades,” Rodvik said in an email.

The agency approved economic-aid measures at the meeting in response to the financial fallout from the virus.

At the meeting, board member Al Fogle said the road money would immediately create 100 to 200 jobs. He said the issue was put on the emergency agenda in an attempt to start work this summer, rather than next year.


[Amid criticism and the coronavirus pandemic, Alaska investment board approves $35 million for Ambler Road]

The promise of jobs this summer is potentially “misleading,” given that Doyon and other landowners have not granted the agency a right-of-way for the project, Schutt said in the letter.

Rodvik said the agency will need right-of-way “access for the full complement of jobs, which includes field work, but many jobs can be performed remotely.”

The financing and development agency approved the road funding despite critics who called into the emergency meeting arguing that the agency was bypassing the normal public process.

The state has studied the two-lane gravel road for several years. It would access a large, undeveloped copper-zinc mineral belt.

The federal government said last year in a draft environmental impact report that the project will cost at least $500 million. Conservation groups and some who live in the region have criticized the road as expensive and a potential threat to subsistence resources and the region’s rivers.

[Conservationists and hunters denounce state-financed mining road across northern Alaska wilderness]

Doyon owns 12.5 million acres in Interior Alaska, including near Evansville, about 200 miles northwest of Fairbanks.

The agency has proposed building a portion of the road through that area, the letter said.

But Doyon’s lack of right-of-way approval would restrict field work this summer, Schutt wrote.

“AIDEA has never even presented a written proposal to Doyon for such access, much less a written proposal or detailed information regarding the (right-of-way),” he wrote. "As such, AIDEA and its contractors do not have permission to enter or cross Doyon lands to conduct any field work in the summer of 2020, or at any time.”

The corporation hopes the agency is not using a “public health tragedy to pressure Doyon or other landowners into granting" right of ways, Schutt wrote.

Doyon neither supports nor opposes the road, Schutt wrote. But the corporation has raised many concerns about the project over the years.

The agency has largely failed to address those concerns, he wrote.

“We remind you that AIDEA does not have eminent domain authority so this discussion seems to be one that you would have wanted to initiate before spending millions of dollars to complete the (draft environmental impact statement)," Schutt wrote. "It seems even more foolish to expend an additional $35 million on a field program without substantive discussions with us, an indispensable party.”

Rodvik, with AIDEA, said the agency is “committed to working with all stakeholders” to advance the project responsibly and create economic development and jobs.

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Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or