A regional Alaska Native corporation is canceling a land-access agreement with a state development agency, a move that raises questions about how the 200-mile Ambler Road project in Northwest Alaska will be built.
Doyon, the largest private landholder in Alaska, cited “poor treatment” as a factor in a sharply worded letter outlining its decision to cancel the agreement with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. The three-year agreement ends in April. It has allowed for contractors to conduct studies needed to support the project’s development on Doyon land.
Doyon does not plan to extend the agreement or enter a new land-access agreement with the state agency, said the one-page letter, signed by Doyon CEO Aaron Schutt. Doyon is sending the letter in advance of the termination date so the state agency has time to plan for next summer’s work, the letter said.
The letter also expresses Doyon’s disappointment with the state agency’s actions on a separate, North Slope oil field project that Doyon has also been involved in.
The letter, dated Oct. 17 and addressed to Randy Ruaro, executive director for AIDEA, leaves open the possibility of future discussions with the state agency.
In a statement emailed to a reporter on Monday, the state agency said Ruaro and staff have held “several respectful meetings” with Doyon and the Native corporations’ shareholders in the communities nearest to the proposed road.
“Significant progress has been made with communities and Tribes regarding the project and benefits of jobs and economic development,” said the statement from Josie Wilson, a spokeswoman with the agency. “It is unfortunate and frankly unfair that Doyon is tying issues not involving the Ambler Road to its support for the Ambler Road. AIDEA will remain focused on advancing the project and working directly with communities and Tribes closest to the project to mitigate impacts and maximize benefits.”
The proposed gravel road would link Alaska’s skeletal road system north of Fairbanks to the mineral-rich Ambler Mining District, ending near Ambler and other villages.
The road could lead to future mineral development, supporting the state’s economy and jobs, supporters say. Mine development could provide well over $1 billion in state and local government revenue, and deliver minerals such as zinc and cobalt used in clean energy hardware like wind turbines and rechargeable batteries, supporters say.
Opponents have expressed concerns about the road’s construction costs, estimated to run at least $750 million for the road and related infrastructure such as maintenance stations. Critics also say it will threaten caribou and other wildlife in the remote Alaska region, hurting subsistence harvests, and pollute lands and waters.
The agency has proposed paying for the project by selling bonds to investors. The bonds would be paid off over time by charging annual fees to mining companies using the road, under lease agreements, according to the plan.
Just days ago, the Bureau of Land Management issued a supplemental environmental analysis for public comment.
The analysis points out that proposed routes for the road would cross land owned by Doyon. Doyon also owns sites with subsurface rocks and dirt proposed for project construction.
In the letter, Schutt said Doyon entered into the road-access agreement in 2021 with the hope that Doyon shareholders and communities in its region would benefit from the road project and any potential mineral development, helping offset potential consequences from the activity, the letter said.
But two and a half years after the deal was signed, there’s no agreement in place to meet those objectives, according to the letter.
“Doyon’s relationship with AIDEA and the Ambler Access Project has been fraught for many years,” Schutt said in the letter. “Our public record comments and letters to AIDEA leadership reflect many of our concerns related to the project and share the poor treatment we received from AIDEA.”
Schutt also pointed out that Doyon hasn’t seen meaningful progress in other areas of involvement with AIDEA, “despite repeated, direct communications with AIDEA leadership about the importance of relationships.”
John Gaedeke, chairman of the Brooks Range Council, a group from Interior Alaska opposed to the Ambler Road, said the lack of access to Doyon lands would make the two leading alternatives for the road route seemingly impossible.
It also raises questions about whether a third, much-longer alternative route could be built for the Ambler Road, extending more than 300 miles, he said. Gaedeke’s family owns a lodge in the foothills of the Brooks Range in an area where the road might pass.
That longer, alternative route would cross Doyon subsurface lands, according to the federal government’s supplemental environmental analysis.
Another large entity from the Interior, the Tanana Chiefs Conference, has challenged the road project in court along with other tribes. The large tribal consortium is encouraging people on its website to oppose the road. Two tribes, Huslia and Allakaket, backed out of that lawsuit early this year, saying they chose to balance economic development with environmental protections.
Schutt closed the letter by pointing out that Doyon is involved in active litigation with the state development agency on another matter.
Schutt asserted in the letter that the agency has failed to honor an agreement with Doyon at the Mustang oil project at the North Slope. He writes that the state has tried to undermine the deal.
Doyon is suing AIDEA over debt exceeding more than $2 million for unpaid work at the oil project performed by a Doyon subsidiary, according to a filing in Alaska Superior Court in Anchorage.
Doyon did the work for Brooks Range Petroleum Corp., a previous operator of the project. Doyon argues that the state agency, which owns the current operator Mustang Holdings, is responsible for the debt.
Schutt closes his letter by writing: “To be clear, we view AIDEA’s actions related to Mustang to be in bad faith, and that those actions have significantly damaged the relationship with Doyon. Until our relationship is rehabilitated, we will not consider granting AIDEA access to our lands.”
A Doyon representative could not be reached for comment on this story.
Adam Federman with Type Investigations, a nonprofit news organization based in New York City, posted the Doyon letter on Saturday on X, formerly Twitter.