AIDEA gets green light for Ambler mining road

  • A state-owned road to the Ambler Mining District to reach deposits that have long been explored but not yet developed was given the go-ahead by the Bureau of Land Management. (Photo/Courtesy/Trilogy Metals)

In approving a mining access road across the subarctic Interior, the Trump administration has signed off on another decades-long goal of Alaska development proponents.

Bureau of Land Management Alaska officials signed a record of decision providing the State of Alaska right-of-way access across federal lands for the 211-mile Ambler mining district access road July 23. The road would open the roughly 75-mile-long mineral belt along the southwest portion of the Brooks Range for development of its copper, zinc, cobalt and precious metals.

The area has been explored for decades but its remote location far from the road system has precluded additional work.

Congress specifically contemplated the road in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, which directs the Interior Secretary to permit a right-of-way through Gates of the Arctic National Preserve to access the mining district, per other environmental regulations, when one is applied for.

The state Department of Transportation began early reconnaissance work on the road under former Gov. Sean Parnell before the project was transferred to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which applied for the right-of-way under Gov. Bill Walker’s administration.

“This long-sought development of the road and mining district represents tremendous potential for economic growth, diversification, and job opportunities for Alaskans, along with revenue expected to the state and local governments for decades,” AIDEA board chair Dana Pruhs said in formal statement.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy thanked President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for working to advance domestic mineral production in a prepared statement.

“Nearly 40 years after Congress guaranteed access to the Ambler mining district, today’s decision allows AIDEA to move forward with the planning of a project that could create thousands of Alaskan jobs and a new source of revenue for the benefit of all Alaskans,” Dunleavy said.

The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation largely echoed the governor’s sentiment in a joint statement.

Trump also opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil leasing and potential exploration — another ANILCA-designated opening for development — via a provision in the tax cut bill he signed in December 2017.

Local opposition to the Ambler project from villages such as Evansville and Bettles, near where the road would connect to the Dalton Highway, has focused on the belief the road and eventual mine traffic would disrupt the migration of caribou needed for subsistence harvests.

AIDEA officials are modeling their plan for an industrial toll road after the 52-mile haul road to the Red Dog zinc mine in Northwest Alaska that the authority financed in the late 1980s.

And while AIDEA insists access to the road will be limited to mining activity, some also question whether the state will be able to effectively restrict access or if it will instead lead to increased sport hunting pressure.

Numerous conservation groups and others have also questioned the economics of the road. Estimated in 2017 to cost between $280 million and $380 million for basic gravel construction, the final environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the road now pegs the total construction cost at approximately $520 million.

They often note AIDEA has not publicly detailed its plan to coordinate road financing and construction with development of the mineral prospects needed to support the road beyond a conceptual plan.

While there are more than a dozen early-stage prospects in the Ambler district, only two deposits held by Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals have been explored significantly and only Trilogy’s Arctic copper-zinc-precious metal prospect is close to be ready for permitting.

Trilogy said “development of the road will unlock the world-class economic potential of the region by allowing greater access to the district and the potential development of the Arctic project,” in a company statement.

Trilogy leaders previously said the company would likely start federal permitting for an open-pit mine at Arctic shortly after the road was approved. However, the junior mining company was forced to defer its 2020 summer field season because of the pandemic and it’s unclear at this point where the project stands.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/29/2020 - 9:15am