Proposed Ambler project underscores promise and peril of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

Third in a series: Ambivalence about the Ambler road and mine projects extends across the Upper Kobuk River region, where jobs could support subsistence but development could jeopardize it.

Third in a series. This story is part of a reporting collaboration between Alaska Public Media, the Anchorage Daily News and Indian Country Today on the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for the project was provided by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.

ALONG THE UPPER KOBUK RIVER – To Bryant Sun, a 17-year-old from the Iñupiat village of Shungnak, plans for a nearby open pit mine and 200-mile access road pose too much of a risk to his family’s traditions of subsistence hunting and fishing.

In this remote Northwest Alaska region, where the only way in and out is on a plane or boat, groceries can be impossibly expensive: $10 for a bottle of salad dressing or a box of cereal.

So Sun’s family, and many others, depend on seasonal harvests of moose, caribou, bears, berries and fish. They have two subsistence cabins — one upriver from town and one downriver.

“Traffic that’ll be going through there, with all that equipment and stuff — they’ll just scare everything off,” Sun said in an interview outside his Shungnak home in July. “That road would affect everything, I’d say.”

Sun’s village sits on the banks of the upper Kobuk River, a murky, fertile ribbon of water that connects Shungnak with two other predominantly Native villages, Ambler and Kobuk. Just north are the Brooks Range foothills, where a mining company, Ambler Metals, is drilling to test the viability of a potentially lucrative copper prospect.

Fred Sun, Bryant’s father, works at Ambler Metals’ mining camp in the mountains.

His passion for subsistence is equal to his son’s. But after years in the mining industry, Fred, 47, is comfortable with the idea of the project 25 miles from his home.

[Part 1: A historic settlement turns 50, but questions linger over whether it was fair]

“When you’re Bryant’s age, you don’t really have bills to worry about. He’s never even bought a gun before, and he uses guns all the time. He doesn’t realize everything he uses to help fill our freezer costs money,” said Fred, who’s also the president of Shungnak’s tribal council. “We can’t live our subsistence lifestyle without having a job.”

The divide between father and son reflects a wider ambivalence about the mine and road projects that extends across the three Upper Kobuk River villages. It also reflects tensions embedded in the federal legislation that settled Indigenous Alaskans’ land claims: the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which turns 50 this month.

[Part 2: Many see the Red Dog mine as an ANCSA success story. What happens when the ore runs out?]

The act aimed to clear the way for construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline by extinguishing Indigenous land claims, with a transfer of 44 million acres — about 10% of the state — to dozens of newly formed Native-owned corporations.

Congress’ vision behind the legislation was at least partially one of self-determination: Indigenous shareholders could, in theory, sustain their urban and rural lifestyles with profits from management and development of their corporate lands.

But the act was also meant to assimilate Native people into the capitalist system. And development and natural resource extraction can clash with subsistence traditions of hunting, fishing and gathering.

The projects near the Suns’ home embody the tensions between the region’s economy and subsistence culture, as Northwest Alaska’s regional, Native-owned corporation, NANA, is participating in the preliminary stages of the mine’s development. As part of a deal it struck with Ambler Metals, NANA’s shareholders are being hired to work on an exploratory drilling effort, and NANA land is being used as a staging area.

NANA executives say the drilling and exploration process they’re participating in will help them decide if the balance is right. And that process requires deliberation and continuing discussion with affected communities and shareholders, said Lance Miller, NANA’s vice president of natural resources.

“You still have to have something that makes sense economically. It has to make sense socially, environmentally — that triple bottom line,” he said.

[Environmentalists and Alaska villages continue court challenge of permits for Ambler Road project]

The mine still faces a number of obstacles before it can be built, including securing substantial financial investment and major federal permits. Environment groups and tribes near the road’s route have also filed lawsuits challenging key Trump-era environmental approvals.

But for now, the project continues to move forward.

Living off the land

The Upper Kobuk, like many areas of rural Alaska, straddles the modern and traditional.

Residents have internet-equipped cellphones, order packages from Amazon and can reach Anchorage by plane in a matter of hours. But yearly rhythms still largely revolve around the subsistence calendar.

In the spring, there’s duck and beaver hunting, and sometimes bear. In the summer, people harvest sheefish from the river, set nets for chum salmon and gather blueberries, salmonberries and cranberries. Fall is hunting season for caribou and moose.

One state survey showed that in a single year, Ambler’s collective subsistence harvest added up to 600 pounds of food per resident, while Shungnak’s and Kobuk’s are both several hundred pounds.

Those resources are especially important given the high cost of groceries and the scarcity of high-paying jobs in the Upper Kobuk: In Ambler, for example, the median household income is $45,000, far below the statewide figure of $75,000.

“Food is so expensive up here. Gas is so expensive. Everything’s expensive,” said Miles Cleveland, 70, a borough assembly member from Ambler. “You need a job to go to the store.”

Clara Jones, 49, has three freezers at her home in Ambler, plus another in a tent outside, that preserve the harvests she shares with family members and friends — including many in other villages and even on the road system.

On a warm July day, she watched from the riverbank as her son motored out on the Kobuk to set a subsistence net for chum salmon; she’d already cut up and shipped 30 sheefish to relatives elsewhere.

“All the rich resources we have here, we can live off of,” Jones said. “That’s how we always were taught by our grandparents, and we continue to do it. And I’m hoping to pass it on to my children, my grandkids.”

A history of prospecting

Prospectors first began searching for minerals in the Upper Kobuk around 1900. By the 1960s, a subsidiary of mining giant Kennecott Copper Co. was setting up summer camps for helicopter-assisted exploration.

One Shungnak elder, Neal Sheldon, said he used to walk several hours across the tundra into the mountains to work at the mining camp, known as Bornite. Fred Sun’s father worked with prospectors, too; he would leave Bornite late after his shift as a camp dishwasher, and drink tea that colleagues left warming over the coals of a fire they’d set at the halfway point on their walk back to their village.

Today, Ambler Metals, a joint venture between Vancouver and Australian mining firms, uses the Bornite camp as a base for its exploratory drilling sites perched on sheer cliffs deeper in the mountains.

If it’s built, the mine could employ hundreds of people and produce hundreds of millions of dollars in wages, and boosters say its minerals would aid the world’s transition away from fossil fuels. But it would place a major industrial operation in the Upper Kobuk watershed.

In spite of the risk the project poses, some residents already have a level of comfort with the mining industry because they’ve worked at the existing Red Dog project, 150 miles to the northwest.

That large mine sits on NANA-owned land and is operated by multinational Canadian company Teck; it opened three decades ago and employs hundreds of NANA shareholders, some whose yearly incomes reach $100,000 or more.

Red Dog has also made hundreds of millions of dollars in royalty and tax-like payments to NANA and the Northwest Arctic Borough, which describe the mine as a foundation of the region’s economy.

Before Red Dog was built, some residents were worried about its impacts on subsistence, and the mine has faced lawsuits and criticism from a neighboring village over its environmental record. But many local leaders and residents now hail it as a success story.

“They’ve been a good partner,” said Cleveland, the borough Assembly member. “They’ve done great things for a lot of us, as far as employment and people that work there.”

Red Dog’s supply of ore, though, is now running low, prompting tough questions about what will come next.

The road

There are important differences, however, between Red Dog and the Upper Kobuk project.

The new mine would tap a deposit that is smaller and less lucrative than Red Dog. Its major deposit also does not sit on NANA land, though NANA’s deal with Ambler Metals allows the Native corporation to take a stake in the mine if it’s built.

Then, there’s the road.

Red Dog also ships out its minerals on a road built for that purpose. But its route connects the mine only to an isolated port on the Chukchi Sea coast, with no communities along the way.

The Ambler road would connect the Upper Kobuk to the rest of Alaska.

Starting from the Dalton Highway — the road from Fairbanks to the North Slope oil fields — it would end in the area of the mine, which lies near other mineral deposits that could also be developed.

The route is expected to connect to Kobuk, and potentially to Shungnak and Ambler as well.

And that makes residents nervous.

Upper Kobuk locals say the caribou they harvest already face pressure from sport hunters on fly-in trips. And many residents worry the road could bring in even more hunters from Fairbanks or Anchorage.

There’s also the potential for collisions with caribou or other impacts on wildlife from mineral-hauling trucks, which could make as many as 170 trips a day during peak production. And if the additional mineral prospects along the road’s route are built into mines, that could add to the pressure.

“I’m just worried about it messing up the migration route,” said Jones. “Everybody depends on their game.”

Alaska’s economic development agency, and others involved in the road’s planning, say the route will be open only to private use — not to hunters or for other recreational purposes.

Skeptics cite the case of the Dalton Highway, where the northern stretches were initially closed to the public before the state government opened them in the 1990s. Local and tribal interests sued to block the move, citing risks to subsistence harvests and public safety, but a 1994 Alaska Supreme Court decision allowed the opening to proceed.

The groups pushing the Ambler road say the circumstances are different. In its 1994 decision, the Supreme Court cited a federal right-of-way grant for a “public road,” while the Bureau of Land Management says the federal grant for the Ambler road would be specifically for “limited access” and not open to the public.

Road supporters also argue that NANA wants to keep the road closed to the public where it stretches across its lands, and NANA itself says it’s counting on an “ironclad assurance” that access remains “private and controlled.” Boosters also say federal permits can restrict use of the road and that mine operators would want to limit access to ensure the safety of their trucks.

Many locals are unconvinced those limitations can be enforced.

“They say the road is basically going to be for the mine itself. But you know how the United States works,” said Chuck Schaeffer, a NANA shareholder who works as a supervisor at the Bornite camp and still thinks the project’s benefits are worth the risks it poses. “Give it 10 or 20 years and everybody’s going to be using the roads. What does that mean? The rivers, the migration of the caribou herds — it’s going to affect everything.”

The road project also faces some intense opposition in villages in the Koyukuk River valley. The route travels through that region, but residents are largely shareholders in Doyon instead of NANA.

Critics say Koyukuk River residents would take on all the risks from the road, without the benefits from NANA’s potential stake in the project.

Then, there’s a worst-case scenario of a spill or accident at the mine that could contaminate the Kobuk River.

“Every mine has a tailings — what happens if it fails?” asked Shungnak resident Anthony Norris, 31. “That’s a disaster.”

A huge word

But in the Upper Kobuk, at least, some residents also say the mine and road projects could come with significant benefits.

One is the road’s potential to bring cheaper goods and access to a region that faces extremely high prices, like the $10 for a gallon of gasoline that Ambler residents were paying this summer.

Not everyone is convinced that the road would significantly reduce costs: The Upper Kobuk would still be a 450-mile drive from Fairbanks, and it’s not certain that all three villages would be able to connect to the route.

But supporters envision a road link making life in the Upper Kobuk more sustainable. There’s also the potential for construction jobs and work at the mine, though projections say it would only operate for a dozen years.

Many Upper Kobuk residents already have summer work at the mining camp at Bornite, like Fred Sun.

Sun, in an interview, pointed out that more than half the members of Shungnak’s tribe live outside the village, and that many NANA shareholders live outside the region. The road and mining project could be a means to keep more of them in rural Alaska, he suggested.

“I have so many friends and relatives that live in Fairbanks and Anchorage who would rather live in Shungnak. But there are just no opportunities there — there’s no work, the cost of living is too high,” Sun said. “It kind of hurts a lot. If my kids decided to, I’d like them to have the opportunity to live at home, if they so choose.”

Ambler Metals’ final decision on whether to build the open pit mine is still likely three years away.

As the mine and road projects continue to move forward, Upper Kobuk residents on both sides of the issue, and those withholding judgment for now, say they will continue advocating for the best interests of their villages.

But in interviews, many said they don’t think their opinions will matter.

“Regardless of what we say and how we say it, that road is definitely going to be shovel-ready within three to five years. And there’s not a darn thing we can do about it,” said Conrad Douglas, 64, a city council member in Ambler.

Ambler Metals President Ramzi Fawaz said the mine will not be built without “social acceptance” and “social license” — which, he said, his company has not yet obtained.

“I’m not there yet,” he said. “This is an ongoing thing, and it will continue to be ongoing. Nothing is taken for granted.”

Fawaz is originally from Lebanon. He has worked on resource development projects around the world and only recently moved to Alaska to oversee the mining project.

In an interview, at his company’s Anchorage headquarters at the base of a corporate office tower, he acknowledged that he can’t fully grasp the stakes for the villages nearby.

But, he added: “I have lived and done a lot of projects in similar environments, and what I’m hearing doesn’t surprise me.”

“It is genuine, it is important and it goes to the heart of how people live and what they want and what they desire and what they fear,” he said. “I’m going to do my utmost to understand and respect and do what I’m told, and what I’m being advised. And that’s all I can do.”

Ambler Metals employs some locals with long histories in the region, and who also say they appreciate the weight of the debate.

Schaeffer, the Bornite camp supervisor, believes the project offers worthy benefits. But he does not discount its risks.

Schaeffer supports “responsible development,” he said.

But, he added, the “responsible” in that phrase is a “real huge word.”

Coming next: Corporate shares mean dividends, identity and a say in what corporations do. Many Alaska Natives under 50 are waiting to be included.