The Caribou in the Copper Mine

Mining companies seek to carve up Native lands and wildlife habitat to build a $350 million access road.

Yereth Rosen February 5, 2018

Cal Craig of Trilogy Metals Inc. (middle) answers questions at the annual meeting of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group. (PHOTO BY ERIK HILL)

ANCHOR­AGE, ALAS­KA — In a hotel meet­ing room in bustling down­town Anchor­age, lead­ers from far-flung Native vil­lages talked about how cari­bou and roads do not mix.

Opponents see the Ambler mining road as an expensive boondoggle that will carve up habitat, endanger wildlife and disrupt indigenous hunting and fishing.

The migra­tion pattern’s going to get hin­dered,” said Tom Gray, rep­re­sent­ing the Native-oper­at­ed Rein­deer Herders Asso­ci­a­tion at the Decem­ber 2017 meet­ing of the West­ern Arc­tic Cari­bou Herd Work­ing Group, an advi­so­ry pan­el made up of locals depen­dent on and pro­tec­tive of one of Alaska’s two largest cari­bou herds, 200,000 strong.

The herd roams a vast swath of north­west­ern Alas­ka, typ­i­cal­ly trav­el­ing about 2,000 miles a year. Their ter­ri­to­ry holds wide areas of lichen-car­pet­ed tun­dra, the north­ern fringe of the qui­et bore­al for­est, icy and fish-filled streams that flow out of the Brooks Range, sec­tions of the north­ern­most U.S. nation­al parks — and, if the Alas­ka Indus­trail Devel­op­ment and Export Author­i­ty (AIDEA) gets its way, a 211-mile road allow­ing access to a cop­per-rich north­west­ern area pre­vi­ous­ly too iso­lat­ed to jus­ti­fy open­ing mines.

Sup­port­ers say the project will cre­ate need­ed rur­al jobs and a new source of wealth for the whole state. Oppo­nents see the road as an expen­sive boon­dog­gle that will carve up habi­tat, endan­ger wildlife and dis­rupt indige­nous hunt­ing and fishing.

This debate pre­dates 1980, when the Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act set aside 104 mil­lion acres as nation­al park­lands, wildlife refuges and oth­er pro­tect­ed units. The act also allowed for a sec­tion of an Ambler min­ing road to cut through one of those new parks, Gates of the Arc­tic, but only recent­ly did a spe­cif­ic road plan final­ly materialize.

The Bureau of Land Man­age­ment plans to decide on approval by ear­ly 2020.

AIDEA envi­sions a pri­vate-pub­lic part­ner­ship” to foot what it esti­mates will be $350 mil­lion for con­struc­tion (in addi­tion to oper­at­ing costs), with min­ing com­pa­nies chip­ping in user fees.

Eye-rolling crit­ics char­ac­ter­ize the Ambler road pro­pos­al as yet anoth­er chap­ter in a his­to­ry of hare­brained Alas­ka devel­op­ment schemes—the last of the zom­bie mega-projects,” wrote John Gaedeke, own­er of a lodge on the edge of Gates of the Arc­tic, in a let­ter to the Fair­banks Dai­ly News-Min­er. The most auda­cious: Project Char­i­ot, a Cold War-era plan to det­o­nate hydro­gen bombs off the coast to cre­ate a deep­wa­ter sea­port. Then there was the pro­posed rail­road tun­nel link­ing Alas­ka to Rus­sia, a Bering Strait ver­sion of the Chun­nel (minus the pop­u­la­tion centers).

Rick Van Nieuwen­huyse, pres­i­dent and chief exec­u­tive of Tril­o­gy Met­als Inc., which is posi­tion­ing itself to mine Ambler-area cop­per, pitched the project as envi­ron­men­tal­ly friendly.

The only way to com­bat glob­al warm­ing, Van Nieuwen­huyse said at the Decem­ber 2017 work­ing group meet­ing, is to switch to renew­able ener­gy and elec­tric vehi­cles. Both of those things require huge amounts of addi­tion­al cop­per,” he said, com­pared to coal pow­er and fuel-dri­ven vehi­cles. I like to refer to cop­per as the green met­al of the future.”

He faced a tough audience.

Some mem­bers of the work­ing group fret about mine-waste man­age­ment and poten­tial runoff of dan­ger­ous mate­ri­als. But it is less the min­ing that wor­ries crit­ics than the two-lane grav­el road.

Work­ing group mem­bers talked about how cari­bou move­ments are altered by the mere pres­ence of roads. They talked about dust, traf­fic noise and wider eco­log­i­cal impacts of a road, includ­ing to water qual­i­ty and fish. And, when giv­en assur­ances that the Ambler road would be only tem­po­rary — closed to the pub­lic to pre­vent influx­es of out­siders and dis­man­tled after min­ing was over — they invoked past Alas­ka expe­ri­ences as a rebuttal.

Somebody’s pulling somebody’s leg here,” said Vern Cleve­land of the Inu­pi­at vil­lage of Noorvik, the group’s chair­man. Look at the Dal­ton Highway.”

That 414-mile high­way was built in the 1970s oil-boom era, run­ning par­al­lel to the Trans-Alas­ka Pipeline. It was also tout­ed as tem­po­rary, and for indus­tri­al use only. In 1994, it opened to the public.

Charles Sac­cheus, an Inu­pi­at elder from the vil­lage of Elim, talked about being 10 years old and trav­el­ing by dog sled across the cari­bou hunt­ing grounds. I love cari­bou. It’s what feeds me,” he said. It’s our way of life from time immemorial.”

What­ev­er ben­e­fits come from the road, they will not go to the region’s peo­ple, he predicted.

We’ve got to be very care­ful about our fish and wildlife.”

Yereth Rosen is a long­time reporter based in Alaska.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH