2 tribes are withdrawing from lawsuit against proposed Ambler Road in Alaska
Two Alaska Native tribes said Feb. 16 they are leaving a lawsuit that seeks to stop construction of a state-proposed 200-mile industrial road through the wilderness that would reach a valuable mineral district in Northwest Alaska.
The tribal councils of Allakaket and Huslia say they recognize the need to balance their traditional lifestyle and environmental protection with future economic opportunities, according to a prepared statement from the tribes.
“We believe it’s important to recognize that we now walk in two worlds — continuing to respect and value our culture and subsistence lifestyles while also embracing the opportunity for economic growth and stability for our people through higher education and jobs,” said Gordon Bergman, second chief of the Allakaket Village Council, in the statement.
Reached by email, he said only about 20 people in the village of more than 130 residents have year-round jobs. Materials are expensive in the remote community about 200 miles northwest of Fairbanks.
“Gasoline is $11.50 a gallon,” he said. “A 100-pound propane tank is $305. A 12-pack of pop is $19.89. Allakaket has three washers and two dryers to share between.”
“Through sheer determination, we’re trying to make our lives better,” Bergman said.
He said he did not have a calling card to make phone calls, so preferred to communicate by email.
The tribal councils voted to unanimously to withdraw from the lawsuit, their statement said.
In 2020, Huslia and Allakaket joined other tribes in bringing the lawsuit, along with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Fairbanks-based tribal consortium representing 42 tribes in the state’s Interior.
The lawsuit challenged the federal government’s decision under Republican former President Donald Trump to issue a right-of-way permit for the road, which had been proposed by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state agency. The Tanana Chiefs Conference said the federal review of the project’s impacts to the region was “rushed, flawed, premature, and inadequate.”
The administration of Democratic President Joe Biden last year raised concerns about the federal review. It halted the permit for the road as it conducts an additional environmental review.
Brian Ridley, chief of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, said in a statement that the organization had received the resolutions from the two tribal councils saying they would leave the lawsuit. Ridley said that the resolutions say the councils still oppose the road.
Tanana Chiefs will press forward with the litigation at the direction of its member tribes, and will continue to focus on protecting the region’s lands, animals and ways of life, Ridley said. He said that in 2014, the organization approved a resolution that had been submitted by Allakaket that called on Tanana Chiefs to oppose the road, Ridley said.
Tanana Chiefs “continues its commitment to holding the federal government, the state of Alaska and any and all oversight agencies to providing a thorough and robust analysis in determining how best, if at all, to proceed with the Ambler Road Project,” Ridley said.
The proposed gravel road is expected to cost more than $500 million.
It would link Alaska’s skeletal road system north of Fairbanks to the Ambler mining district, ending near Ambler and other villages. A portion of it would cross the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
It would cut through caribou habitat and many rivers and streams. The Bureau of Land Management has called the mining district “world class and strategically important” for the minerals it contains.
The Allakaket and Huslia tribes said in the statement that they want their voices to be heard in a productive dialogue with the project proponents and federal agencies. Doing so will help their communities, while demonstrating their commitment to ensuring responsible development, they said.
They pointed out that the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which set aside vast portions of Alaska for conservation and called for surface access to the Ambler Mining District, sought to balance the state’s extraction-based economy with environmental protection.
The two tribes said in the statement that a visit by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy to the region during the summer led to several productive conversations between the community and the governor about the project.
Dunleavy, in an emailed statement from his office, said: “I sincerely appreciated the time I spent discussing the proposed Ambler Road Project with members of the Huslia and Allakaket tribes, and how it can bring family wage jobs and prosperity to their members while still preserving their culture and traditions for future generations.”
Carl Burgett, chief of the Huslia tribal government, said the development of the road and the Ambler Mining District can provide jobs to combat poverty in the region. To hunt for moose or other subsistence animals, some families must pool their money to buy gas and other materials.
“If you can’t afford to hunt or buy gas, you can’t practice a subsistence lifestyle,” Burgett said in an interview. “You have to have jobs and opportunity to live in today’s Western world and lifestyle.”
Burgett said mining in the district can provide critical minerals needed for national security, and can benefit local communities.
“We should not depend on foreign sources of these minerals when they can be developed more responsibly on our lands, to the benefit of our people and the entire nation,” he said in the statement.