Even in a state known as The Last Frontier, the Brooks Range is special.
This Arctic landscape located about 200 miles north of Anchorage offers some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the United States. With a combination of rivers, forests, and tundra, the Brooks Range remains one of the most unspoiled wilderness destinations in the U.S. — and maybe anywhere in the world.
“Most people in Alaska talk about the Brooks Range the way the rest of America talks about Alaska,” said John Gaedeke, who started the Brooks Range Council to protect the area. “It still floors me how special it is.”
But now a planned mining road threatens this pristine landscape; it would disrupt 3,000 of the range’s untainted waterways. First proposed by Alaska’s Department of Transportation in 2012, the plan got a boost in July 2020, when former President Donald Trump’s administration granted a right-of-way permit.
President Joe Biden suspended that permit. However, last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior released an analysis that offered three options for moving forward with the project.
This resulted in immediate backlash from a coalition of hunters, anglers, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes outraged by the decision. They’re urging the public to protest the project during the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) comment period, which lasts until Dec. 22.
Impact of the Ambler Road Project
The Ambler Road project is intended for the exclusive use of Canadian and Australian mining firms seeking to extract copper, zinc, and cobalt from the Brooks Range foothills. Those minerals have become critically important for the construction of solar panels, wind turbines, and other clean energy technology.
Obtaining more of those minerals will be vital for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Commission. Global demand for copper is expected to soar up to at least 275% by 2050, according to ScienceDirect, outpacing projected supply. And for Biden, expanding renewable energy is a key part of his agenda.
But moving forward with the project also comes with plenty of environmental impacts, including carbon emissions. Last month, an environmental review from the BLM said that road construction and mining activity would pollute the air and water, threaten wildlife populations, and impact 66 of Alaska’s native communities.
If built, the road would allow trucks carrying hazardous materials to travel east to west across thousands of sensitive waterways. It would also cross through over 20 miles of Gates of the Arctic National Preserve and allow for open pit mines that “would change the region forever,” the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) said in a statement.
However, both of Alaska’s senators — Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan — continue to support the project and criticized Biden for slowing down the approval process.
“This is classic Biden administration: undermining American strengths in a very dangerous time, subverting the clear intent of federal law, and lying to Alaskans,” Sen. Murkowski said in a press release.
But project opponents said state leaders aren’t actually interested in the concerns of locals.
‘Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone’
Barry Whitehill, a former employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, first moved to Alaska in 1992. He still vividly remembers his first flight to the remote community of Bettles, located in the Brooks Range.
“You think it’s an untouched landscape,” Whitehill said. “And then you see this road scar running through it.”
That “scar” was the result of a bungled project dubbed the Hickel Highway, named for former Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel. In 1968, he pushed through a road project in the region despite the widespread protests of native Alaskans, according to PBS. Transporting freight on the road proved no less expensive than flying it, and the Hickel Highway was abandoned just one month after construction finished.
“Anytime they put in one of these mine roads, it just diminishes what’s there,” Whitehill said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
For John Gaedeke, the owner of Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge, the Brooks Range isn’t just an untouched territory home to 180,000 caribou — it’s where he grew up. His father, an immigrant from East Prussia, moved to Alaska in the late 1960s. After marrying, he and his wife spent their honeymoon cutting logs to build the lodge. Now Gaedeke runs the family business, flying in tourists for fishing and sightseeing.
He called the Ambler Road project a “nightmare scenario.”
“My clients are always asking me questions that sound ridiculous to locals, like, ‘Can you drink the water?” and ‘Who stocks the fish?,'” Gaedeke said. “And I’m like, ‘This is what you get when you don’t mess it up.'”
To leave a comment on the proposal, visit the BLM website. Also, Hunters & Anglers for the Brooks Range has started a petition to protest the project. So far, the group has won the support of more than 35 Alaska-based businesses and conservation groups.