It can feel counterintuitive to see the massive Red Dog mine, dug into the mountains of Northwest Alaska, as an essential support to the region’s Indigenous tradition of living off the land.
The operation, run by multinational mining company Teck, is industrial: open pits, a huge mill and trucks hauling zinc and lead concentrates to the coast for shipping.
But one crucial fact makes Red Dog very different from other large mines: It sits on land owned by NANA, the Native corporation for Northwest Alaska that itself is owned by some 15,000 Indigenous shareholders with roots in the region.
NANA took possession of the land that’s now the Red Dog mine after Congress approved the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which transferred roughly 10% of the lands in the state to Indigenous-owned corporations.
In a landmark agreement with a Teck predecessor company in 1982, NANA agreed to let the firm access its lands. Teck, in return, shares profits from mineral sales along with jobs for Indigenous shareholders and NANA-owned companies, and NANA participates in the mine’s oversight.
Some residents have been skeptical all along, and the mine has not delivered on all of its promises. But decades later, NANA executives and many Northwest Alaska residents describe the Red Dog deal as the kind of success that their leaders originally envisioned.
The mine, they say, is a steady source of jobs and cash in a place where those things are otherwise hard to find.
But Red Dog also has a limited lifespan: Its operators say there could be just 10 years until the mine’s supply of ore runs out. And that fact is casting uncertainty across the state — over the economy in Northwest Alaska, the communities in the region near where NANA is eyeing a new mine, and the Native corporations statewide that depend on the Red Dog revenues that NANA is legally required to share with them.
Hundreds of NANA shareholders now work at the mine, earning yearly salaries that can reach $100,000 or more. The money, mine boosters say, is essential for sustaining life in the region’s remote villages, where residents can pay $10 a gallon for gas that fuels the snowmachines and boats they use for traditional harvests.
“Since we merged with a Western culture, everything needs cash,” said Tristen Pattee, a NANA shareholder who works at Red Dog. “It’s just required now.”
Pattee’s home village of Ambler, on the upper Kobuk River, has a poverty rate nearly triple the state average.
The nearest university is 300 miles away, reachable only by plane. Pattee dropped out of college after a semester.
At 36, his job at Red Dog has made him an economic anchor in the village of 300 people.
Pattee buys gas for family members to get out on the river to hunt and fish, or to pick up firewood. And he’s invested more than $100,000 in his own business, boating tourists to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes or to see caribou swim across the Kobuk on their yearly migration.
Pattee started his career at Red Dog just out of high school in 2004, driving huge mining trucks. He now works rotations in the mine’s environmental department, with responsibilities that include air and water sampling.
Outside the mine, Pattee said, he saw no clear job prospects in Ambler. The likely alternatives were going back to school or working with his father’s bar business in Anchorage.
“But there are a lot of people in the village that would have no opportunities like that,” Pattee said. “If this place didn’t exist, it would be very difficult.”
Stories like Pattee’s are scattered throughout the villages of Northwest Alaska. NANA’s agreement with Teck requires Red Dog to give a hiring preference to NANA shareholders, and 750 currently have jobs with the mine, including contractors.
Many shareholders work at the mine for a few years, acquiring skills they can use back home, then return to their village. Upriver from Ambler in the village of Shungnak, former Red Dog employee Fred Sun is now working at another mining prospect much closer to his hometown.
Sun, 47, is an avid subsistence hunter and fisherman. But he says those activities wouldn’t be possible without the cash he earns from the mining industry.
“Nobody has dog teams anymore, at least in our area. We need gas, we need ammunition, guns to hunt animals with,” he said. “They kind of mix together, you know? We can’t live our subsistence lifestyle without having a job.”
Mixed attitudes on Red Dog
Academic and economic studies have shown that Red Dog’s impacts on the Northwest Arctic are substantial, with one showing that the mine, in previous decades, provided more than 10% of jobs in most villages. NANA shareholders collectively earned nearly $50 million at the mine last year, according to Teck.
At the same time, those studies have shown some of Red Dog’s unfulfilled potential.
Many of the mine’s Indigenous workers actually reside outside the Northwest Arctic Borough: Only about 20% of Teck’s workforce lives in the region.
Turnover is high, with roughly 75% of Red Dog workers leaving within a decade — though research shows that many workers who leave maintain higher incomes than the rest of the region’s population.
And while NANA and Teck’s predecessor originally set a goal for its workforce to be nearly 100% shareholders by 2001, it’s long been stuck at closer to 60%. The biggest obstacle is filling what Cole Schaeffer, the mine’s human resources superintendent, calls “technical and professional” jobs that require more training — and which some Alaska Natives may pass up at Red Dog if a similar position is available in an urban environment.
There are plenty of NANA shareholders, including some who have worked at Red Dog, who don’t see the mine as crucial. Some argue the shift work pulls them away from their families and makes it hard to plan their subsistence harvests. Others say there’s enough work in the region’s villages to pay their bills.
“The Upper Kobuk villages can survive on their own, without the help of the mines,” said Conrad Douglas, 64, an Ambler City Council member who’s worked at Red Dog and calls the mine a “scar on our property.”
Community leaders in Kivalina, the only village downstream from Red Dog, also say they’ve borne a disproportionate share of the mine’s impacts.
They’ve long maintained that Red Dog’s discharge has contaminated their water supply and subsistence resources, even though it’s closely regulated by the state government.
“We still don’t harvest our beluga the way we used to when we were growing up. The berry-picking sites are still places that we avoid,” said Millie Hawley, the administrator of Kivalina’s tribal government.
NANA shareholders in Kivalina receive annual dividend payments from the corporation. But Hawley said residents are dissatisfied that more of them aren’t hired to work at the mine, in spite of an extra hiring preference for shareholders from the village. And Kivalina still lacks piped water and sewer systems, even as Red Dog generates hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly profits and can produce 5% of the global zinc supply.
“The state benefits. The borough benefits. The people in the NANA region, shareholders benefit,” Hawley said. “But Kivalina has taken the brunt of it all. Other people get paid in wages, and we get paid in negative impacts.”
NANA’s executives said they’ve tried to be good partners with Kivalina, and acknowledged that there’s room to improve their relationship with the village. The corporation convenes a subsistence committee that includes representatives from Kivalina, and earlier this year, the mine delayed the start of its shipping season in response to members’ concerns about effects on hunting of bearded seal and beluga whales.
NANA executives also said the dynamics are complicated by the fact that global warming and thawing sea ice are forcing Kivalina’s relocation.
“The potential challenges that Kivalina faces can be compounded by the idea that they’re in the watershed of a world-class mine — and yet they are a community that experiences some pretty intense poverty and challenges,” said Liz Qaulluq Cravalho, NANA’s vice president of lands. “And we have invested in ways to tackle some of those things.”
Red Dog’s wastewater discharge, meanwhile, must meet the standards of its Clean Water Act permit overseen by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Department officials said that while Red Dog has periodic permit violations like other large mines, its discharge is too diluted to be detectable at Kivalina’s water source, some 50 miles away.
“From a simple dilution standpoint, the water is as safe as if the mine didn’t exist,” Allan Nakanishi, a DEC engineer, said in an interview.
A settled debate
While differences of opinion about Red Dog persist, debate over the mine has been largely settled for the past three decades.
But the not-too-distant future could test residents’ ideas about getting by without it.
Teck says Red Dog has enough ore to keep operating until 2032, at which point it will have to shut down without additional supply.
There’s a major deposit 10 miles from Red Dog that could extend the mine’s life by decades, said Les Yesnik, Red Dog’s general manager.
But Teck’s understanding of the geology in that area is still uncertain. And Yesnik said the company is still working with neighboring villages to make sure they’re comfortable with the potential impacts from development — including a new road that would have to be built to the deposit.
It could take five years before it’s clear if the project is viable, Yesnik said.
Red Dog’s future is enormously consequential for the region. In addition to the royalty that Teck shares with NANA, it makes yearly payments in lieu of taxes that cover 80% to 90% of the Northwest Arctic Borough’s annual budget.
The mine’s importance also extends far beyond Northwest Alaska. That’s thanks to provisions in the 1971 Native claims settlement legislation that require Native corporations to share 70% of their natural resource revenues.
That means that of NANA’s $175 million in proceeds from Red Dog in 2020, it redistributed $100 million, according to the corporation’s annual report. In some years, the mine has been responsible for more than half of all the resource revenue shared statewide between the regional corporations.
The regional corporations, in turn, share half of that redistributed revenue to the roughly 150 village corporations operating in their areas. And for many of those village corporations, the money can make up more than half of their annual revenues.
“It’s the difference between being unprofitable on a steady-state basis versus being able to maintain a certain degree of solvency — without having to consider really difficult decisions like selling your land,” said Nathan McCowan, who chairs a group that represents village corporations, the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association.
Red Dog’s eventual closure, McCowan said, could have major impacts on the operations of those village corporations. And many of them maintain essential services in rural communities hundreds of miles from Red Dog, like grocery stores or fuel distribution operations.
Both NANA and the Northwest Arctic Borough, meanwhile, are conscious of the need to diversify.
But for now, Red Dog remains a major economic engine for the region and for NANA shareholders. And the borough’s efforts to promote alternatives like tourism and green energy don’t appear likely to replace mining’s impact in the near future.
“Those will not carry a region,” said Lance Miller, NANA’s vice president of natural resources.
With a successor for the mining industry missing and Red Dog’s future uncertain, NANA is now eyeing a new copper prospect — one that’s just 20 miles upstream from Pattee’s village of Ambler.
That project presents a different set of considerations from Red Dog: It would come with a new, 200-mile road that could connect the remote Upper Kobuk River villages to the rest of Alaska. Residents and local leaders are split.
Supporters cite the potential for jobs and cheaper access to food and commodities to help sustain their communities. Opponents say the new road and mine threaten their subsistence harvests and way of life.
This story is part of a reporting collaboration between Alaska Public Media, Indian Country Today and the Anchorage Daily News on the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Funding for the ANCSA project was provided by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism. Read more from the series.