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Permission Denied: Biden Blocks Road Through Alaska’s Brooks Range

Conservation and tribal groups welcomed the news, while Alaskan senators blasted Biden for preventing more resource extraction in the state.

brooks rangeThe Brooks Range is a bucket list destination for fishermen all over the world; (photo/Aaron Hitchens)
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President Joe Biden’s administration denied permission for a controversial road project through Alaska on Friday.

The 200-mile Ambler Road would have allowed a private company to reach valuable mineral deposits in the state. Conservationists and tribal leaders opposed the road’s construction, arguing it would permanently alter the Brooks Range — one of Alaska’s largest wilderness areas.

In a statement Friday, Biden said the state’s natural resources support a “vibrant subsistence economy” for Native communities. That’s why he said his administration will also increase federal efforts to halt oil and gas development in parts of the state.

“Alaska’s majestic and rugged lands and waters are among the most remarkable and healthy landscapes in the world,” Biden said. “These natural wonders demand our protection … As the climate crisis imperils communities across the country, more must be done.”

brooks range Alatna River packrafter
Packrafting on the Alatna River in the Brooks Range; (photo/Barry Whitehill)

The state’s Republican leaders, however, greeted Friday’s news with sharp criticism for Biden, Alaska Public Media reported.

“He is destabilizing our security as a nation in a way that most didn’t think possible in such a short time period,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said at a Thursday press conference.

A Prolonged Fight Over Brooks Range

Biden’s decision comes at a difficult moment for his administration. The White House is trying to balance land conservation with the mineral extraction needed for a transition to cleaner energy.

The $350 million Ambler Road project would allow mining company Ambler Metals to reach a copper deposit estimated at $7.5 billion. Copper is a crucial material for wind turbines, photovoltaic cells, and other renewable energy infrastructure, which will be necessary for Biden’s plan to bolster clean energy in the U.S.

brooks range 2
Sunrise in the Brooks Range; (photo/John Gaedeke)

But the proposed two-lane road would cut through both the Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park, crossing 11 rivers and thousands of streams along the way. For many outdoor recreation groups, any impact to the sensitive and beloved wilderness is unacceptable.

“Today’s announcement is a big step toward an enormous conservation win for all Americans who value the unbroken landscapes, exceptional habitat, and opportunities for solitude in this awe-inspiring region,” Lewis Pagel, owner of Arctic Fishing Adventures, said in a statement from Hunters & Anglers of the Brooks Range.

Biden’s Department of the Interior ultimately agreed. Federal officials announced Friday through the Bureau of Land Management that there should be “no action” taken on the project. A more formalized denial of the road project will likely happen later this year.

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Fishing on Kobuk River in the Brooks Range; (photo/Barry Whitehill)

The Politics of Conservation

Critics of Biden’s decision accused him of pandering to young voters in an election year. Last year, environmentalists and young activists were outraged when Biden approved an $8 billion oil drilling project on unspoiled Alaskan wilderness.

Now, Biden’s administration has refocused on environmental initiatives. They’ve not only saved the Brooks Range, but also announced new rules requiring oil and gas companies to pay more for drilling on federal lands.

Both of Alaska’s senators, Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, accused Biden of playing politics and causing “extraordinary damage” to the state’s economy.

John_Gaedeke_Iniakuk_Lake brooks range
John Gaedeke on a canoe in Lake Iniakuk in the Brooks Range; (photo/John Gaedeke)

The president and his team “are trying to find a way to prove their environmental cred to younger voters who are not seemingly impressed,” Murkowski told the Anchorage Daily News.

But many Alaskan locals have fought against the Ambler Road project for years. That includes John Gaedeke, who was born and raised in the Brooks Range and runs a wilderness lodge built by his parents decades earlier.

For him, the prospect of the Ambler Road was a “nightmare scenario.”

“I tell my clients it’s like going to the moon,” he told GearJunkie. “It’s one of the few places left in the world where you can go that remote. It’s a very wild place.”

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