Photo by Angela Malagón/Unsplash

A federal decision favoring no right-of-way approval for the Ambler Road is drawing outrage from Alaska’s congressional delegation and governor, and kudos from several Alaska tribal and environmental entities. 

Interior Department officials said on Friday, April 19 that the 210 miles of the Ambler Road proposed by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) would span an area of significant wildlife habitat and pristine waters vital for subsistence along the Brooks Range in north central Alaska.   

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has identified “no action” as its preferred alternative. The BLM contends that other proposed alternatives “would significantly and irrevocably impact resources, including those supporting important subsistence uses, in ways that cannot be adequately mitigated,” the Interior Department statement said. 

The BLM also published a final rule prohibiting petroleum development in 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) and 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea. 

Alaska’s congressional delegation promptly condemned the Biden administration’s announcement, as did Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy. 

“Once again the president and his team are making unjustifiable decisions that hurt us while allowing some of the worst regimes in the world, in nations like Iran and Russia, to stay in power, enrich themselves from resource production, and then use those revenues to finance terror and war,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. The senator said the Biden administration is undermining the rule of law, ignoring the voices of Alaska Natives, and punishing Alaska despite the state’s strong environmental record. She vowed to work with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, to overturn that decision any way they can, whether in Congress, the courts, or the next administration. 

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The decision goes against the strong opposition of elected Alaska Native leaders from the North Slope Borough region, who have flown 4,000 miles eight times to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to express their vehement opposition to the administration’s new rule for the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, said Sullivan.  

“The president is listening to and taking direction from far-left Lower 48 eco-colonialists who don’t give a damn about the Indigenous people of the North Slope of Alaska,” Sullivan said. 

“Closing off NPR-A is a huge step back for Alaska, failing to strike a balance between the need for gap oil and natural gas and legitimate environmental concerns, and steamrolling the voices of many Alaska Natives in the decision-making process,” said Peltola. 

The state’s sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives called the Ambler Road decision premature while real conversations among stakeholders of the region are ongoing. 

The state has a wealth of natural resources that can be responsibly developed to help boost domestic manufacturing and innovation, Peltola said.  “In the end, it should be up to Alaskans to decide what they want developed in their region,” she said. 

Dunleavy also condemned the Biden administration’s announcement regarding drilling in the NPR-A and the road to connect the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District. The governor said this will deprive Alaskans of an opportunity for good-paying jobs and prevent the state from upholding its constitutional mandate to develop natural resources for the maximum benefit of the people of Alaska. 

Several Alaska Native tribal entities, including the Tanana Chiefs Conference and Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, meanwhile praised the Biden administration’s decision.  

“This is a historic win for the Alaska Native community,” said Brian Ridley, chief chair of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, who called the decision a monumental step forward in the fight for Indigenous rights and environmental justice. 

“This road and all the mining that it would have invited would have destroyed our subsistence resources and water sources in our pristine homeland,” said Kathleen Peters-Zuray, a member of the executive committee of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. “The road would have destroyed our way of life.” 

The Wilderness Society noted that the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act of 1976 requires the BLM to balance oil and gas development with protection of fish and wildlife, subsistence, recreational and other values.  

“We are deeply grateful that the Biden administration has taken steps to safeguard globally significant and invaluable resources, address climate change impacts and implement stronger protections for special areas in the Wester Arctic,” said Meda DeWitt, interim state director for Alaska for the Wilderness Society. “The regulations announced will benefit the Western Arctic’s wildlife and subsistence resources and the Indigenous communities that depend on them, as well as provide greater resilience against climate change.” 

Katie McClellan, mining impacts and energy program manager for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, said that preventing development of the proposed Ambler Road, a necessity for Arctic climate resilience, would protect intact lands, waters, fish and wildlife that communities throughout the Brooks Range depend on. She urged the Biden administration to continue to listen to local Indigenous knowledge, scientific data, and what she described as long-standing, widespread public opposition to the road. 

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