OPINION: The nonsensical push to build the Ambler Road

I have questions for our legislators about the Ambler Road, but they start with a question about the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority: Why are you acquiescing to a state corporation subsidizing a foreign corporation in league with a Native corporation to build a 200-plus mile road across the Brooks Range? AIDEA’s board is only representative of corporate and business interests, and is pushing to subsidize a road for corporate interests that locals aren’t demanding. It’s well-documented that AIDEA has lost money on half of its “investments,” and most of the workers on AIDEA-funded projects in the Interior don’t even live in Alaska, so why are you acquiescing to a boondoggle-prone agency going at it again?

AIDEA’s promises about the Ambler Road being limited to an industrial road are vaporous. Gov. Wally Hickel’s misguided belief that oil would not come out of the North Slope unless the state built the road to Prudhoe was proved a fallacy when the Hickel Highway was abandoned, because Alyeska had built a different road — which, it was promised, would always be an industrial road. That promise lasted until Bill Sheffield was governor, and then it was forgotten. Today, the Hickel Highway is still there as a long, insidious scar 400 miles across the Brooks Range, and the pipeline road is a public road. Do any of you seriously doubt that all such promises will be forgotten once the Ambler Road is built?

So, what about the project itself? One respected economist who has studied AIDEA extensively told me that the Ambler claims “will never, ever, meet market conditions,” unless, that is, the state subsidizes their development. Of course. We’ve seen it all before, and the scheme to do so is the road, which would bridge as many as 11 major rivers and nearly 3,000 smaller streams, and obliterate 1,700 acres of wetlands, depending on the final route chosen. That alone should be enough to kill the whole project.

I know some argue that local people from Kobuk River villages want the road for jobs, but is that true? I spent years serving the Inupiaq people of the Northwest Arctic as a lawyer, have followed closely what everyone is saying, and it looks to me like corporate interests are aligning differently from what the people want. And the Kobuk villages are only part of it, because the proposed road would follow historic trade routes between the Inupiaq and the Koyukon and Gwich’in of the Interior, all across the southern slope of the Brooks Range. The vast majority of Athabascan villages likely impacted along the route don’t want the road. It’s not hard to figure out why. You only have to look at what happened after the Steese and Taylor highways were built in the early 1900s. Migrating bands of the Forty Mile caribou herd were decimated by road hunters, and the herd has never recovered. Why are legislators allowing AIDEA to impose that same fate on people who still rely upon caribou for food?

To me, a 200-mile road on state credit across the southern slope of the Brooks Range, in order to access corporate mining claims, is a proclamation by our state that our northern civilization, which invaded a land already peopled under European justifications of discovery and conquest, will keep subsidizing private interests to push west and north until it is finally stopped only by the sea. Nothing in the way of that push is sacred. No land can go unexploited. We’ll do it because we can. So, this leads to the existential questions. I know we can build roads in many virgin valleys, but should we? If there is a road there, doesn’t that by definition mean it is no longer a frontier? Are we really ready to have a state corporation run by conflicted businessmen who have never been elected to anything retract the claim that Alaska is the Last Frontier?

Doug Pope is a longtime Anchorage-based attorney. He represented John Sturgeon before the U.S. Supreme Court and has argued many other cases related to the stewardship of Alaska’s resources. He was also the prime sponsor of the initiative to ban same-day aerial hunting of wolves and the initiative to ban billboards on the state’s highways.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Doug Pope

Doug Pope