OPINION: There are better alternatives to the Ambler Road

Kudos to Shield Downey, author of a recent ADN column, for expressing the way he and other local residents of Northwest Alaska sadly feel toward the proposed, subsidized Ambler Road that will adversely affect their culture and unique subsistence lifestyles. I love Alaska and have lived here since 1956, when I went to work as a newly minted biologist with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Sport Fish and Wildlife Service, an era when some 30 professional employees effectively managed the entire territory, an area more than twice the size of Texas.

Despite archaic mining laws, I’m supportive of the mining industry — it has a crucial role in our national security, sustains multiple industries and aerospace endeavors. But I resent the way freewheeling developers and miners pitching projects minimize the potential adversities and maximize the benefits, especially if beneficiaries are foreign industries. Alaska Natives resent the lack of transparency, especially the way negative effects are ignored or sugarcoated in order to get support.

The environmental and social impacts of constructing a multimillion-dollar, 211-mile unpaved road to connect the Kobuk River and Dalton Highway cannot be overstated: It would extend along the southern flank of the Brooks Range across Gates of the Arctic National Park, cross 10 major rivers, three of which have been officially designated as Wild and Scenic, and numerous tributary and smaller streams, as well as terrestrial habitats vital to key subsistence species.

Voluminous amounts of gravel would be needed to construct and maintain a long Ambler roadbed, placement for numerous bridges and culverts, constructing huge storage yards for heavy equipment, machinery, fuel depots, lodging camp facilities and drainage ditches. Gravel would be mined from river and stream beds, floodplains and off-road sites tellingly called “borrow pits.”

Air and water quality would never be the same. The heavy flow and settlement of road dust during construction would render productive waterways murky, their channel bottoms clogged to the detriment of fish and bottom-dwelling organisms — the underpinning of aquatic ecology. This problem would be exacerbated after the road became operational, because open trucks loaded with raw ore would increase the fallout and then, to make matters worse, release deadly toxicants such as zinc, mercury, lead and other inert chemicals. These would linger in the environment for decades, accumulating in plants such as lichens that, if eaten by caribou, in turn could be transmitted to humans.

Migrating caribou move en masse during the night, making them highly vulnerable to collisions with large, high trucks moving in both directions and, as a result, roadkill mortality would be tremendous. When an industrial road becomes opened to public usage, backcountry residents could feel threatened by gawking urbanites often view themselves as on a receiving end of multiple ills from opportunists, increased flow of drugs and alcohol and outsiders taking over business opportunities. Roads irreversibly transfigure the landscape to the point that intrinsic values disappear “forever.”

There are, however, three less costly alternatives that developers should consider in order to develop the Kobuk’s rich mineral deposits. A road or a railroad from Ambler’s four mining sites to the sea coast, like the way Red Dog operators truck ore 55 miles to Kotzebue Sound, then barge it to a storage facility for eventual shipment to Seattle. Either alternative would entail the same route north through the Kobuk Valley direct to a storage facility somewhere along the coastline west of Kiana. It would be built mostly on Native-owned rather than public lands, thus requiring fewer permits to construct.


A railroad along the same route would also be less costly to construct and maintain, as well as less of an environmental impact. It would also be an Alaska runner-up to the historic 195-mile Kennecott railroad used to transport copper ore during the early 1900s.

Another alternative would be to fly high-grade ore direct to a refinery using air cargo systems, a proven method commonly used by other countries with minimal access to remote mining regions. It would be the least deleterious to the environment, as well as more easily and less costly to get online, hence more profitable. Any one of these alternatives, or two in unison, could be better and more feasible than using an unpaved road to truck raw ore 485 miles to Fairbanks.

Change is inevitable. Corporate leaders must consider the concerns of tribal governments, villagers like Mr. Shields, in drafting lease agreements with foreign contractors and local operators to ensure developments result in minimal damage. NANA would have a major role in establishing the parameters and conditions by which miners would be compelled to follow. Preference to use subsurface over open-pit mining practices is a case in point, since the latter requires huge amounts of water compared to the former. This water would be subjected to toxic contaminants that would likely come from and leach back into the Kobuk River.

The Last Frontier may morph into a “lost frontier” if all the proposals on the table come to fruition: expansion of Red Dog’s open-pit mine, the pending Pebble mine, touted to be the largest open pit mine in the world with a proposed 200-mile industrial road to the coastline of Shelikof Strait; a proposal to have a hydroelectric facility three miles inside the Wood-Tikchik State Park and unsightly transmission lines to Dillingham and several outlying villages (and possibly the Pebble mine complex if it becomes a reality); a 100-mile industrial road to the tranquil Susitna Valley; an extension of the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to the expanding Fort Knox mine, continuing to an open pit mine near Tetlin — and, if former Gov. Frank Murkowski’s dream becomes a reality, onward into Canada. More proposals are certain to come.

The quality of life in Alaska has changed over past several decades, as exemplified by the collective impact of overcrowded municipalities, traffic congestion and diminished availability of fishery stock, as well as red-meat animals, stuff I seasonally harvested to raise a large family. “The Last Frontier” slogan may change by simply replacing the “A” with an “O.”

Dick Hensel is a retired biologist who formerly worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, University of Alaska and Department of Fish and Game. A former member Board of Game, he lives in Anchorage.

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