Written by Jon DevoreElisabeth Ross and Nicole Bayne

On March 27, 2020, the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”), within the Department of Interior, published its Final Environmental Impact Statement (“FEIS”) on The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s (“AIDEA’s”) proposal to build a 211 mile industrial access road linking the remote Ambler Mining District to the closest existing road, the Dalton Highway in the southern foothills of the  Brooks Range of north central Alaska..[1]  BLM selected AIDEA’s planned route as the preferred alternative, and found that the road could go forward without significant environmental impacts.  BLM’s environmental findings are important because they will be used as the environmental record by the Department of Interior in making its final decision, as well as  the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard in their permitting processes.  Certainly, with the FEIS’s completion, Alaskans are a critical step closer to development of the road which should spur Alaskan jobs, economic opportunities and resource development

Economic projections about the project are impressive.  AIDEA estimates the project will create an annual average of 486 jobs during construction and up to 68 full time jobs over the road’s life.  Plus. in the private sector, mining development is expected to create additional highly valued jobs and economic opportunity for the region, as well as for the State as a whole. The private toll road will be built with concerns about impacts on subsistence users and local communities paramount.   The timing couldn’t be better. This project could be “shovel ready” this year when Alaskans need to boost and diversify our economy. This project will be one of the major developments in Alaska’s economic future.

Many Alaskans have looked forward to developing these opportunities for many years.  Early in its history, the State identified the Ambler area’s prime mineral development potential, which had been explored and evaluated for more than a century.  Mineral resources include copper, lead, zinc, gold, silver, cobalt molybdenum and possible rare earth minerals.  Senator Ted Stevens and other Alaskans pressed Congress for years to recognize the State’s interest in encouraging resource development in the area.  As a result, Congress authorized a right of way through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (“GAAR”) in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (“ANILCA”) passed in 1980, to ensure transportation access to the Ambler Mining District.

The road will have important multiple purposes.  By connecting this remote resource rich area of the State to the existing highway, the road will make mining exploration and development more economically feasible.  AIDEA’s proposal furthers its mission of increasing job opportunities and encouraging the State’s growth through development of its natural resources.  AIDEA’s plans include use of installing fiber optics to provide better security, communications and potentially bringing broad band to remote communities.

Throughout the EIS process, BLM consulted extensively with Alaskans and people in the Lower 48, including community meetings, tribal consultations, public input, and federal and state cooperation over the past 3 years. BLM said that its outreach efforts “contributed to its comprehensive analysis that will help pave the way for Alaska to responsibly develop its natural resources and create jobs.”

Selection of AIDEA’s Proposed Route

Based on the purpose and need for the project, the BLM identified potential alternatives from a number of sources, including alternatives proposed by AIDEA, routes studied by the State and others, and routes and concepts suggested by the public during and after formal scoping. To determine whether an alternative was reasonable, the BLM employed a 2-phase screening process: (1) an initial screening of transportation modes, including road, standard rail, blimp/dirigible, pipeline, elevated rail, narrow-gauge rail, ice road, and barge, and (2) a screening of routes associated with the reasonable modes. The BLM considered an alternatives effectiveness at satisfying the purpose and need, technical and economic feasibility, the practicality of the alternative, and whether the alternative substantially duplicated others evaluated.

The BLM EIS analyzed three reasonable alternatives in addition to a no-action alternative as a benchmark:

Alternative A is AIDEA’s proposed route accessing the District from the east. It begins at Milepost (MP) 161 of the Dalton Highway and runs almost directly west for 211 miles to the District across primarily State-managed, BLM-managed, and GAAR lands. This route crosses GAAR farther north than Alternative B.

Alternative B is a 228-mile road with its eastern terminus at MP 161 of the Dalton Highway. It follows the same alignment as Alternative A except it loops to the south to pass through GAAR at a location that crosses less National Preserve land and is farther from the Park and Wilderness boundary.  But it could have more significant environmental impacts.

Alternative C is a 332-mile road with its eastern terminus at MP 59.5 of the Dalton Highway. It approaches the District from the southeast, primarily across BLM managed lands.

After analyzing the range of alternatives, BLM determined that AIDEA’s Alternative A is the preferred route for the right-of-way and proposed environmental mitigation measures to provide additional protections. Access can be provided in a manner that encourages development of Alaska’s resources and economic development, while also preserving and protecting the natural environment.

The Project:

The project proposed by AIDEA includes a 211-mile, all-season, industrial access road to the Ambler Mining District in the southern foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range.  The road will provide access for mineral exploration, mine development, and mining operations by connecting the District with the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road (Dalton Highway), an area currently without any road or surface access. Local communities may have commercial access to the road when it is built. Under AIDEA’s proposal, approximately 25 miles of the proposed road will cross BLM-managed lands.

AIDEA’s proposed project is only the industrial road. At the moment, there is no formal proposal for a specific mine and therefore no agency is currently considering authorizing mining in the District. However, the FEIS addresses reasonably foreseeable mine development.

Next Steps:

While the Final EIS identifies a range of alternatives, the Secretaries of Interior and Transportation will need to determine a route through the gates of the Artic National Park and Preserve. BLM will prepare and release a Record of Decision which may be published no earlier than 30 days after the FEIS Notice of Availability. The Record of Decision may likely adopt mitigation measures suggested in the FEIS and may further address comments from the public and State. Birch Horton Bittner and Cherot encourages broad public involvement in these types of Alaskan development projects which is why we share this with you.

For more information and to read the Final EIS visit: https://www.blm.gov/programs/planning-and-nepa/plans-in-development/alaska/AmblerRoadEIS

[1] See generally, US Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Final Environmental Impact Statement, DOI-BLM-AK-F030-2016-0008-EIS (Mar. 2020).