State investment agency approves $500K for summer work on Ambler Road

A map of the proposed Ambler Road project (Map courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)
A map of the proposed Ambler Road project (Map courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority board voted to put $500,000 into the controversial Ambler Road project on Wednesday. The state agency is in charge of making investments and providing loans to various business interests across the state.

The Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project, commonly known as the Ambler Road project, has been a lightning rod for controversy for years, pitting the desire to expand business and mining interests in the state against the concerns over impacts to the environment and subsistence.

The road would lead to the Ambler Mining District, northeast of Kotzebue, which has deposits of copper and other metals that companies want to be able to truck across the state.

Board members heard public testimony over the phone from people across the state. Supporter Michael Jesperson of Anchorage says that Alaska is too dependent on oil, and needs to develop other industries like mining.

“We need to look to the future, not just now,” Jesperson said. “My kids need jobs when they graduate college. I would like the economy to improve and the value of my house to go up. None of that’s going to happen in a bad economy.”

However, to get to the site, the road would start near the Dalton Highway and cross Gates of the Arctic National Park. Environmentalists have expressed strong opposition to building a road through a national park. The Army Corps of Engineers completed its final environmental impact statement at the end of March. It says that the road could affect air and water quality, wildlife migration and erosion.

Residents like John Horner of Kobuk are fearful that building the road could affect access to caribou and other sources of subsistence hunting.

“This is going to affect my kids and their kids’ futures as well,” Horner said. “We cannot eat money. One word that comes to mind with this Ambler Road is ‘genocide.’ You guys are slowly going to kill off our culture, our way of life which defines who we are as Indigenous people.”

As AIDEA has weighed financially supporting the Ambler Road, a new factor has come into play in the last several months: the COVID-19 pandemic. As businesses across the state struggle to stay afloat due to the pandemic, the AIDEA board has received criticism from the public over who they’re giving funds to. The first meeting the board held during the pandemic was in March and saw overwhelming opposition to giving funds to the Ambler Road. During that meeting, the board approved putting $35 million dollars into the Arctic Infrastructure Fund, while simultaneously designating the Ambler Road as an Arctic project.

While testimony was much more even this time around, just over half of the testimony was in opposition to the Ambler Road.

“I implore you, do not go ahead with this expenditure for the benefit of overseas-headquartered megacorporations,” Palmer resident Loren Karro said. “Put the money towards helping Alaskans survive these extraordinary times.”

The company that’s been developing a prospect in the Ambler Mining District is Ambler Metals LLC, a Fairbanks-based subsidiary of Trilogy Metals, based in British Columbia.

While many village governments have come out in opposition to the road, regional borough governments have taken a more measured approach. In testimony on behalf of the Northwest Arctic Borough, Siikauraq Martha Whiting says that the borough supports AIDEA putting the money toward the project, but emphasized the importance of reaching out to villagers.

“We request that you continue building relationships with stakeholders within the Northwest Arctic Borough, especially in the communities of Ambler, Shungnak and Kobuk, as this project is in their homeland and in their backyard,” Whiting said.

The up to $500,000 approved for the road by AIDEA this week will be matched by Ambler Metals LLC. It is to go towards aerial photography of the proposed route, public outreach and hiring an external program manager.

Editor’s note: Martha Whiting serves on the board of directors for KOTZ Broadcasting.

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