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Amid criticism and the coronavirus pandemic, Alaska investment board approves $35 million for Ambler Road

Map of the proposed Ambler road and alternative routes on display during a BLM public meeting/hearing at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage on Sept. 10, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

Undeterred by intense public criticism, the board of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority used an emergency meeting Friday to set aside $35 million for a controversial mining road in Northwest Alaska.

AIDEA’s leaders called the meeting to approve a series of economic-aid measures intended to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Board member Al Fogle said the funding for the Ambler Road project was put on the emergency agenda in an attempt to start work this summer.

“We’re going to create 100-200 jobs immediately that otherwise would have gone to waste and been postponed to 2021,” he said.

Any work is contingent upon financial support from one or more of the mines that would use the road.

“We can do this. We can deploy the money. We can get people out working,” said Mark Davis, AIDEA’s chief infrastructure investment officer.

The proposed 200-mile industrial road would access a large, undeveloped copper-zinc mineral belt in Northwest Alaska. Conservation groups and some who live in the region have criticized the project as costly and a potential threat to subsistence resources and the region’s rivers.

Dozens of Alaskans called into the meeting to protest the road funding’s inclusion on the agenda. They accused the board of taking advantage of an emergency to bypass the normal public process.

“It is unacceptable that AIDEA used a global pandemic to funnel money” to the road, said Loren Karro of Palmer.

“Support things that would sustain the residents of Alaska, not Outside mining interests,” said Zoe Fuller, also of Palmer.

The Ambler Road issue overshadowed the board’s other work, which included a measure that waives its normal loan-granting procedures and another that immediately provides $50 million to underwrite small loans issued to Alaska businesses by Alaska banks.

Those loans will be available to businesses that already have loans from Alaska banks. Under the AIDEA plan, businesses can ask for additional cash from their bank to cover immediate expenses. In return, AIDEA will shoulder the risk.

“We’re not going to lend irresponsibly to them,” said Butch Olmstead of FirstBank and the Alaska Bankers Association.

Board members voted to ask the Alaska Legislature for permission to expand the plan to as much as $1 billion. Several legislators said that permission was unlikely because they are planning to leave Juneau within days.

Tom Boutin, AIDEA’s executive director, said Alaskans “should conclude that this board treats every dollar as very, very precious.”

Board member Bernie Karl owns Chena Hot Springs Resort and said he has already been forced to lay off his staff.

“When the public tells us how devastating things are, I had to live that,” he said.

He said Alaskans should expect economic trouble for long after the public health crisis.

“This recovery is not going to be six months. It’s not going to be a year. It’s going to be several years for this recovery,” he said.

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