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Ambler road plan sparks intense debate in Fairbanks public hearing

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 17, 2014

FAIRBANKS -- The state-backed plan for a 200-mile road in northern Alaska west of the Dalton Highway sparked intense debate this week among dozens of tribal and village leaders who questioned the potential impact on their way of life.

A two-day meeting ended with a public hearing Wednesday where dozens of people spoke about the road, mining, subsistence and economic development.

"We need to stop being controlled by foreign investments," said Julie Roberts-Hyslop, vice president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. "They're coming into our land, tearing up our land and leaving what? They take the dollar with them.

"When is the government going to start listening to our voice and what we want? Not what they want, but what we want," she said.

As Irene Henry of Allakaket spoke, she was accompanied by three grandchildren -- Jessica, Flora and Megan -- who held signs with images and drawings about the importance of fish and game, berries, open spaces and Native culture. She said the road and the development of a mining district would lead to irreversible destruction.

Ida Ross of Kobuk said she needs an inhaler now, but if the road opens, the pollution will be worse and the Native way of life will be damaged.

While most of those who testified opposed the road plan or said they need more information, there was support from representatives of the mining industry and some others, including staff members for two state senators.

Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, president of NovaCopper, defended the road plan on economic grounds, saying mining jobs pay $85,000 to $90,000 a year.

"That's a salary you can raise a family on," he said, adding that the company wants to develop a mining district, not just one mine, with projects that would last for generations. In presentations to investors, the company has referred to the various mineral prospects as a "string of pearls."

He and most of the other people who spoke in favor of the road called for continuation of the plan to prepare an environmental impact statement that would identify problems and benefits.

"This process will gather important information needed by the communities of the Kobuk and Koyukuk regions," Nieuwenhuyse said, providing a way to raise concerns and understand the benefits and impacts of a road and mines.

"Of particular importance is subsistence, the key issue for the people of the region," he said.

Mining geologist Curt Freeman said he supports the road for industrial use, not open to the public, and that limited access would prevent many of the problems people are worried about. But others said public pressure would lead to an open road and more hunters and fishermen, despite claims to the contrary.

"This will be a public road, absolutely, no way around it," said longtime Fairbanksan Jim Kowalsky, adding that anyone who thinks otherwise is naive or lying.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which is leading the development plan, had been in line for $8 million in the budget of former Gov. Sean Parnell, but that was removed by Gov. Bill Walker. AIDEA has estimated the road could cost from $190 million to $300 million, while others have said it could be closer to $400 million.

Whether the $8 million in planning money will get put back in the next state budget remains to be seen, though staff members for Fairbanks Sen. John Coghill and Anchorage Sen. Cathy Giessel testified that their bosses support the undertaking. AIDEA has outlined plans with a construction target of 2019.

Giessel's statement said the road would benefit all Alaskans and that "community leaders along the route of the road have been supportive of the opportunities that this road can bring."

John Gaedeke, who has long lived in the Brooks Range and runs a lodge with his mother on Iniakuk Lake, challenged the assertion that the road and the mine are matters of economics.

"It is a decision about the people of Alaska. Should they put down their hunting rifles and pick up road signs? Should they eat dollars instead of caribou? Should the state of Alaska support foreign mining interests and neglect their own people?"

He said the development authority should represent Alaskans. "That needs to change before anything else on this project moves forward," he said.

Veteran Alaska guide and bush pilot Art Mortvedt, who has lived in the Ambler and Kobuk area for most of the past 40 years and whose family has a lodge at Selby Lake, said the road could destroy wilderness.

"There are some things on which one cannot put a price. The wilderness integrity of an intact, unadulterated Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, along with the preservation of a very unique subsistence lifestyle, are two of these things on which one cannot put a price," he said.

"Rather than build another road to nowhere, let's stop this project now," he said.

He said a railroad from the west, a pipeline that can carry minerals in a slurry, fixed-wing aircraft and airships could be used to get minerals to market. "If some of these alternatives are more expensive than a road, then it's worth the price," he said.

Fairbanksan Barry Whitehill, who has worked and traveled in the Koyukuk, said the solitude on public lands is a value worth keeping. He said road development is "akin to cancer," in that out-of-control growth is the usual pattern.

Alaska Miners Association executive director Deantha Crockett said her organization supports access to remote areas but is not speaking for or against the road "in the literal sense of the word," but in support of the process to prepare an environmental impact statement. She said that all relevant economic and environmental issues will be addressed in the permitting process.

Fairbanks biologist Fred DeCicco said an EIS should be thorough, but he cautioned that the system is not set up to produce impact statements that say whatever project is being proposed should be halted. It is founded on a philosophy that an EIS has a "thousand ways to say 'yes' and no way to say 'no.'"

Matthew Gilbert of Arctic Village, a former president of the Venetie Reservation, said the road would bring "development to the whole Brooks Range" and should not proceed for that reason.

Sandy Jamieson, who has been a guide and pilot for decades, said the economic value of wilderness in Alaska should not be discounted.

"We've got something here that's better than anything else anywhere," he said.

"If somebody wants to take that away in the form of putting a bunch of roads through it, I think those of us who don't want them to do that have the right to ask: When can we get it back and how much is it going to cost to get it back the way we have it today? That has to go into the equation, I think," he said.

Katherine Moses from Allakaket said she opposes the road and doesn't see anyone putting away money to deal with the impact in future decades.

Herbie Vent and others compared the situation to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and predicted that there would not be many jobs and they would not last. He said the mining promoters are making empty promises and "I'm not really excited about that road."

"Once you open a road, you're asking for quite a bit of trouble," he said.