OPINION: Ambler project reminds Alaska freedom is indivisible

The thing about any individual freedom is that it relies on all the others. The right to private property depends on the right to self-defense, which depends on the right to vote, which depends on free speech, and on and on. It’s a lesson of history Alaskans must heed this month as the federal Bureau of Land Management fields public comments about the environmental impact of the proposed Ambler Access Project.

The Biden administration will soon decide whether to greenlight the project, which would build a 211-mile road from the Dalton Highway to the south bank of the Ambler River, finally giving Alaska access to the vast resources embedded in the Ambler Mining District.

To call the project a necessity is an understatement.

It is a necessity to Northwest Alaska, without question. The economic life of the entire region is at stake. The Red Dog zinc mine, currently the area’s principal economic engine, will be depleted by 2031. That’s an eight-year doomsday clock already ticking down. Hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in annual wages, and more than $100 million in local revenue sharing with Alaskan native corporations are at stake.

The project is a national and global necessity, too. Many of the minerals embedded in the Ambler mining district are copper and rare-earth deposits. The Biden administration says we need an energy transition, but that can’t be accomplished without these minerals.

Right now, the United States is dependent on other countries to import these minerals. Crazy as it sounds, many in Washington would rather get these minerals from foreign countries than from us. That’s absurd. But it’s worse than that. Many of the countries from whom we import these minerals do not share our values about the environment or anything else. The cobalt we don’t mine in Alaska, for instance, we import from “slave-like” operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And it’s not like mineral-rich alternative trading partners like China and Russia are much better. Why in the world would we submit to a global mineral supply chain based on Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping when we could have one based on families in northwest Alaska? We have the minerals America needs.

And as Alaskans well know, we already have Washington’s permission to mine them. That’s what makes federal approval of the Ambler project a moral necessity, too. Alaska was promised access to the Ambler mining district, including roads through federal lands, in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which was signed into law in 1980. Patience is a virtue, but 43 years of delays is abuse of power.


Unfortunately, while the Ambler Road project is an economic, strategic, and moral imperative, that doesn’t mean Washington will do the right thing.

On the contrary, the BLM’s latest revised environmental impact study, released in October, seems to have been written specifically to kill the project.

It’s riddled not only with political conjecture and flawed science, but in many cases utter fiction — like the report’s suggestion that the Ambler Road would be a public highway when the proposal only contemplates a privately funded, industrial service road strictly for mine access.

Which brings us back to freedom. The Ambler Access Project is not just about Alaskans’ right to extract minerals. Without the project, Northwest Alaska communities will to a very real degree lose their right to work, period, to provide for themselves and their families. Local communities — and even the state — will lose the right to govern ourselves.

The decadeslong abuse of ANILCA represents a fundamental violation of all our rights under the Constitution and the rule of law itself.

But there is one right Alaskans still have and must use now to defend all the others: the right to speak out.

The BLM’s flawed environmental impact study is still only an unapproved draft. Between now and Dec. 22, the BLM will be accepting public comments about the report, and by extension about Alaskans’ views on the Ambler Road project.

The BLM website includes a schedule of public hearings residents can attend and make their voices heard in person. It also has an online form for submitting written comments.

If Alaskans — especially in the communities adjacent to the project — want to build our road and mine our minerals, the bad news is that we are going to have to fight for those freedoms. The good news is we can — and if I know our state, we will.

Bethany Marcum is state director at Americans for Prosperity-Alaska.

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Bethany Marcum

Bethany Marcum is executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum.