Alaska may well build a 211-mile road through the wilderness of the western Brooks Range. It's possible the valuable metals buried in the Ambler Mining District will inspire investors to pay for it.
But in recent meetings on the road, something other than money was on the minds of people who care about that part of Alaska.
Hunters and other lovers of caribou — Native and non-Native — have begun asking how many strips of gravel we can scrawl across the broad face of northern Alaska before the great herds will lose their way.
The Ambler Road issue hasn't gotten much attention. The value of the place is abstract and far away — because it is wilderness and hardly anyone goes there —and most of the benefit of taming it with a road goes to stockholders, equipment drivers and metal users who probably haven't heard of it yet.
But there are people in Northwest Alaska, people whose relationship to the caribou is very real. They have noticed that development can pen herds of thousands of animals that otherwise still roam like the buffalo did before the railroads crossed North America.
"We've got to be very careful how we protect our caribou," said Charles Saccheus, who represents the communities of Elim, Golovin and White Mountain on the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group. "We're talking about the road to Ambler mining versus our caribou, the food we put on our table."
"They're placing the road in blueberry tundra, firm ground, where the caribou like to go," said Charlie Lean, a working group member from Nome. "If you want to see what this road looks like, drive the Denali Highway."
"The migration pattern is going to get hindered," said Tom Gray, representing reindeer herders from Nome. "The road is going to impact Nome. It's going to impact Koyuk. Anywhere the herd touches, it is going to impact."
The comments came during a meeting for the road's environmental impact statement.
The road would run from the Dalton Highway west along the south side of the Brooks Range, through state and Native land, some Bureau of Land Management property, and Gates of the Arctic National Park. Federal law already permits a route through the park.
There's nothing to stop it other than economics.
The Legislature has supported the project since 2011 with $26 million in appropriations for various studies. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has $5 million of that left.
AIDEA has funded the environmental process through the end of January, when its board would have to approve further work beyond scoping, said spokesperson Karsten Rodvik in an email.
Trilogy Metals wants the road to access an Ambler copper prospect where it has invested $100 million to acquire rights and explore, said President Rick Van Neiuwenhuyse. Trilogy hopes to sell the prospect to a larger mining company that would commit to paying tolls to fund road construction.
Rodvik's email said the agency's financial model is the successful toll road to the Red Dog Mine, north of Kotzebue. Red Dog paid back the debt to build it.
But that debt was backed only by tolls, using revenue bonds that do not obligate state finances. AIDEA hopes for tolls for this project as well, but Rodvik said it would probably back the debt itself, with general obligation bonds, a type which would have to be repaid by AIDEA even if the mine fails.
Neiuwenhuyse said the company hopes AIDEA will begin with a pioneer road the company could use for development of the mine. AIDEA estimates a pioneer road to cost $280 million, Rodvik said, while a full, two-lane road would cost $380 million. Construction would also require numerous airstrips and material mines.
Elders at the meeting said this discussion has happened before. They recalled that caribou once traveled east and west, but the Dalton Highway blocked their travel.
Vern Cleveland Sr. said the village of Shungnak opposed that road in the 1970s. Officials at the time promised it would be open only for industrial use, not to hunters, anglers and other outsiders coming in vehicles.
Gov. Jay Hammond fought to keep that promise, but the Legislature voted to open the road to the public in 1981. The access it provided changed the country.
Developers of the Ambler Road promise it will be closed to the public, too, used only for hauling supplies in and ore concentrate out from mines to the railroad in Fairbanks, a 500-mile drive.
"Somebody's pulling somebody's leg here," Cleveland said. "Look at the Dalton Highway. It's going to affect us big-time."
Scientists disagree on how much roads hinder caribou migration. The Nelchina herd crosses many roads. It's possible they get used to it.
But it's also possible that today's caribou ranges once spanned more of Alaska and that roads segmented them. Traditional Native knowledge suggests that, but modern tracking technology didn't exist back then and some scientists discount any other kind of information.
Tracking data does clearly demonstrate that the Red Dog Mine's road deflects and deters migrating caribou. Hunting guide Thor Stacey said the problem appears obvious to him around other roads, as well, from the lines drawn on maps by caribou with collars.
Stacey believes the herds we think of as separate now in eastern and central Alaska may have mixed before the roads were built. He said early settlers' writings support that as well as Native elders' memories.
I don't know, but I can imagine a similar discussion happened when salmon rivers were being dammed in the Pacific Northwest.
Dams probably wouldn't hurt salmon runs, right? There was no proof that they would. And besides, one more wouldn't make the difference.
But over the decades, the cumulative damage of many cuts wore down those runs to almost nothing.
We still have salmon in Alaska because we have open rivers and streams. Perhaps we still have caribou because we have wide open tundra, clear of roads for many hundreds of miles.
Caribou might be fine with one more road. And one more after that. Another mine, another drill site, more jobs, more profits.
Until the caribou are gone.
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