Interior Department to Reject Road Through Arctic Preserve


When Congress marked up the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, wily Sen. Ted Stevens insisted that a portion of Gates of the Arctic National Park get the more development-friendly designation as a “national preserve.”

I’ve camped at gorgeous Walker Lake and long wondered at the designation. It turns out a mining megaproject — the Ambler Access Road — would pass through the “preserve.”

Or not. Word leaked out of Washington, D,C., Tuesday that the Biden Administration is rejecting the road. The U.S. Department of Interior has determined the 211-mile long gravel road would “significantly and irrevocably” harm fish and wildlife habitat, disrupt native subsistence hunting, and melt permafrost.

The $350 million road project needs federal approval because it would cross federal lands. It was given a green light in the final days of the Trump Administration.  But Interior Secretary Deb Haaland ordered more work, particularly with evidence the Trump folk lowballed impacts on native subsistence hunting and fishing. Subsequent study found “significant deficiencies” in the Trump Administration’s environmental impact evaluation.

Rejection of the road is a massive election-year victory for environmental groups, stung in 2022 when the Biden Administration let Conoco Phillips go ahead with its Willow oil development project on the North Slope. But it would be a stinging defeat for the Alaska Congressional delegation, as well as the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which has spent millions on the project.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, took note of major copper and cobalt deposits that would be accessed by the road. Murkowski went on the Internet to say: “If the Ambler Access project were in Africa, they’d probably be supporting it and subsidizing it. But since it is in Alaska and some of it crosses federal land, they’re rejecting it.”

Without the road, big mineral deposits — notably a copper deposit valued at $7.6 billion — would remain in the ground.  Advocates have argued that the project would yield metals needed to build the windmills and other ingredients of a ”clean energy” economy.

The Biden Administration has given greens great wins in Alaska. The national interest has been served, given that climate change is impacting the Arctic at a faster pace than anyplace else in America.

The administration has halted oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, another case where development was hastily given a green light in the last days of Trump. The Biden team has rejected a giant copper and gold mine proposed between two of Bristol Bay’s most productive salmon-spawning streams. The old-growth temperate rain forests of Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest have been protected from further logging. 

The Ambler Access project would cross 11 rivers and encroach on one of the most intact ecosystems on planet Earth. I was in great company including Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus on our long-ago visit to Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley National Park.

We left no footprint on the land. Alas, a clumsy reporter accidentally severed the float in Walker Lake marking where we had stashed the party’s beer supply. The beer remains an unretrieved treasure in the natural treasure that is Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.