Biden administration’s rejection of Ambler Road project draws both condemnation and praise in Alaska

The Biden administration on Friday took two major actions that could limit future resource development in Alaska.

It rejected a right-of-way permit sought by a state agency for a 200-mile road through wilderness to the Ambler mining district in Northwest Alaska. The decision raises questions about the future of mineral prospects the gravel road is meant to access.

The administration also moved to retain decades-old protections against potential oil and gas development and mining claims on 28 million acres of federal land across the state.

The actions mark the latest step by the administration that could limit future development in Alaska, on the heels of its controversial decision to approve ConocoPhillips’ giant Willow oil project last year.

Conservation groups and some Alaska tribal entities, including the Tanana Chiefs Conference, expressed support for the actions.

Alaska’s congressional delegation, governor, business groups and some tribal leaders reacted with anger at the decision denying the permit needed for the Ambler road construction.

President Joe Biden said in a statement on social media that the lands need to be safeguarded.


“Today, my Administration is stopping a 211-mile road from carving up a pristine area that Alaska Native communities rely on, in addition to steps we are taking to maintain protections on 28 million acres in Alaska from mining and drilling,” Biden said.

“These natural wonders demand our protection,” he said.

Both actions are a reversal of steps taken under Donald Trump’s administration to permit the Ambler Road right of way and lift the protections against industrial development on the 28 million acres.

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“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to manage America’s public lands for the benefit of all people,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a prepared statement from the agency. “In Alaska, that includes ensuring that we consider the impacts of proposed actions on Alaska Native and rural subsistence users.”

Ambler Road permit denied

The decision against the proposed road to the so-called Ambler Mining District finalizes an effort by the Biden administration that began more than two years ago.

It denies the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state agency, the permit it sought to develop the road.

The road would extend from the Dalton Highway in northern Alaska to the mining district, near villages such as Ambler, running near a large portion of the Brooks Range.

There are no active mines in the area and no mine plan proposals pending before the federal government, the Biden administration said in its statement.

Ambler Metals, which is exploring two mineral prospects in the mineral district, said the permit denial circumvents the intent of the federal law, hurts job prospects for Alaska residents and closes off a domestic supply of minerals used in clean-energy hardware, such as cobalt for renewable batteries.

“Four years ago, the Ambler Project received federal approval after a robust process with extensive consultation,” said Kaleb Froehlich, managing director of Ambler Metals. “The result was a good project with rigorous mitigation measures to ensure minimal environmental disturbance.”

“Sometime in the last four months, however, the Department of the Interior decided it would not reapprove this project,” Froehlich said. “That decision appears to be based not on the project, but national politics in an election year.”

“We remain committed to the project and will explore all legal, legislative, and regulatory avenues to move it forward,” he said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, also issued a statement saying the Biden administration was influenced by national politics:

“This administration is strangling Alaska’s economy and future by taking away its ability to support itself financially and it is happening just to kiss and make up with radical environmentalists still bitter over the President’s approval of the Willow project,” Dunleavy said.

The decision not to allow the road’s development isolates more than 600,000 acres of state lands and privately owned mining claims, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority said in a statement.

The minerals could be useful for defense weapons systems, plus renewable products, the agency said.


“AIDEA will continue to work with local communities and tribes to gather support for the project,” said Randy Ruaro, executive director of AIDEA. “Alaskans were promised the right to develop our resources and create jobs and opportunities for Alaskans and support itself as a state.”

Several business and trade groups in Alaska, including the Alaska Chamber and Alaska Miners Association, issued a joint statement expressing disappointment with the rejection of the road permit.

“This decision also threatens significant future economic opportunity for Alaskans and undermines Alaska’s right to access vital minerals essential for reliable energy and national security, while also disregarding our national and environmental integrity,” the statement said.

The Bureau of Land Management issued a right-of-way permit for the industrial road across federal lands in 2020, during the Trump administration.

Conservation and tribal groups sued the Trump administration in separate lawsuits, arguing that a previous environmental review leading to the permit was flawed.

The U.S. District Court in Alaska agreed to send the permit back to the BLM to address deficiencies identified by the Biden administration, including inadequate analysis of subsistence impacts. That led to the new environmental review of the project.

The review received nearly 90,000 written comments from the public, the Interior Department said.

The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which set aside vast portions of Alaska for conservation, called for surface access to the mining district, including requiring it through National Park Service lands.


Alaska’s congressional delegation on Friday issued a statement condemning the decision on the road.

The Alaska delegation will continue to pursue the road’s approval, said U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat seeking reelection this year.

“All too often, promises made to Alaska Natives by Congress haven’t been kept; this decision is in contradiction to (federal law),” Peltola said. “There’s a path forward where local buy-in for this project is real and sustainable.”

“A rare opportunity for development in rural Alaska under the highest standards, so we don’t have to import from unstable nations that have no protections for people or the environment,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican. “Somehow, none of that mattered to the Biden administration on the Ambler project.”

“There he goes again: President Biden’s announcement on the Ambler Road is lawless, hurts Alaska’s future and jobs for our state, undermines America’s national security, and only makes our country more dependent on adversaries like Communist China for critical minerals,” said U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican.

Some tribes and tribal leaders near the project area have expressed support for the road.

P.J. Simon, first chief of the Allakaket Tribal Council, said he was disappointed by the decision in a statement from Ambler Metals. A road could have increased fishing and hunting opportunities as caribou and salmon struggle, he said.

“We need this road access to feed our families and allow for more affordable goods to be transported to our community, as well as the jobs and investment it would provide for our village,” Simon said in the statement. “I want to see my young tribal members out in the forest hunting and fishing while earning a paycheck. This will keep our culture strong in a changing world.”

Other tribal entities have said they oppose it, including the large Tanana Chiefs Conference.

The tribal consortium in the Interior issued a statement Friday that said the decision rejecting the road is a “significant victory for Alaska Native communities.” It said the road would harm fragile ecosystems and imperil wildlife and residents who depend on the land for food.

“We are grateful for the Administration’s commitment to standing firm and urge them to continue protecting our environment,” says Brian Ridley, chief of the tribal consortium.

NANA, Northwest Alaska’s regional Native corporation, said in May it is withdrawing a land-use surface permit for the Ambler Road over a disagreement with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, including over what it said was inadequate attention to local interests, such as the protection of caribou migration routes.


Continued protection for 28 million acres

The Biden administration also issued a final environmental report recommending continued protections against mining and oil drilling for 28 million acres scattered across Alaska, setting the stage for a final decision in the coming weeks.

The lands were protected from such development in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

The lands are located in Western Alaska, such as the Western Interior, Seward Peninsula and Bristol Bay regions. They’re also found in Southcentral Alaska and in eastern Alaska.

The Trump administration had taken steps to remove the protections, an effort supported by Dunleavy, Murkowski and Sullivan. Doyon, an Alaska Native corporation and the state’s largest landowner, has said it wants the land opened so the half-century-old process of conveying federal land to the corporation can be completed.

But the Biden administration said it found legal flaws in the previous administration’s effort, leading to the new environmental review to determine the best use of the land.

Conservation groups and several Alaska tribes have expressed concern that unlocking the lands would allow an expansion of mining opportunities around the Donlin Gold mine prospect near the middle Kuskokwim River.


Calista Corp. has also raised concerns about opening the lands unless certain criteria are met, including the conveyance of land promised to Calista and Alaska Native village corporations under the 1971 act.

Anaan’arar Sophie Swope, executive director of Mother Kuskokwim, said many of the lands that will receive continued protection are in the headwaters of river systems and are vital for wildlife.

“The Biden Administration’s decision today is an important step toward a future full of wild salmon, healthy people, and healthy lands and waters,” Swope said.

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