Conservation groups sue Trump administration over Ambler road

A Trump administration decision to approve a 210-mile gravel road in Northwest Alaska to provide access to a proposed Canadian mine is being challenged in U.S. District Court.

In the lawsuit filed on Tuesday, Aug. 4, nine conservation groups contend that the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have failed in their final decisions to comply with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act, as well as other federal laws and regulations. The lawsuit also names the U.S. Coast Guard as a defendant, as an agency with permitting authority over numerous bridges over navigable waters that would be needed for the project.

Attorneys with the nonprofit public interest law firm Trustees for Alaska in Anchorage and the Western Mining Action Project in Lyons, CO, filed the litigation on behalf of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, National Audubon Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and Winter Wildlands Alliance.

Bridget Psarianos, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska, said the defendants have 60 days to respond, and that plaintiffs won’t be doing their briefings in court at least until January.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a record of decision announced on July 23 by the USACE, BLM and NPS to allow the lengthy gravel road to operate as a private access road not open to the general public. Even before that announcement, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority in Anchorage had committed to spending $35 million on the road project, which would cut through Gates of the Arctic National Preserve, a plan Trustees contend poses threats to the people, water and wildlife of Northwest Alaska.

The road would also cut through one of the longest wildlife migration paths in the world, crossing nearly 3,000 rivers and streams, dam tundra wetlands and interrupt traditional Alaska Native ways of life, Trustees said.

Trustees also said the Native communities of Allakaket, Ambler, Bettles, Evansville, Huslia, Kobuk, Kotzebue, Koyukuk, Louden, Rampart, Ruby and White Mountain have stated opposition to the road, which would disturb caribou habitat and diminish food security, water quality and access to hunting, fishing and traditional activities.

“The information gaps in the Ambler road permits and environmental review are massive,” Psarianos said. “These agencies lack the fundamental information necessary for permitting a project like this, including the location of the proposed road. The agencies’ conclusion that this project will comply with environmental laws is akin to making a decision by shaking a Magic 8-Ball.”

In June AIDEA approved a $1 million survey plan for the controversial mine road, with that amount to be matched up front by Ambler Metals, a subsidiary of Trilogy Metals, formerly NovaCopper Inc., in Vancouver, British Columbia. Trilogy’s principal assets are the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects in Northwest Alaska. It’s partner in the project is South32, a diversified mining and metals company headquartered in Perth, Australia.

According to Trilogy’s website the company has a long-term agreement with NANA Regional Corp. in Kotzebue to create a major district for polymetallic exploration and development, a deal that would consolidate Trilogy’s and NANA’s land holdings into an approximately 353,000-acre land package as a framework for exploration and development. The agreement includes a commitment from Trilogy to promote employment for NANA shareholders.

NANA shareholder Willie Hensley, a one-time leader of the Alaska Native land claims movement, serves on the board of Trilogy, as well as on the advisory board for the Pebble Limited Partnership.

Doyon, Limited, the regional Alaska Native corporation based in Fairbanks, has voiced concerns about the project. In his letter of April 7 to AIDEA’s executive director Tom Boutin, Doyon President and CEO Aaron Schutt reminded AIDEA that they have no deal with Doyon for a portion of the road AIDEA proposes to cross Doyon lands near Evansville.

“As such AIDEA and its contractors do not have permission to enter or cross Doyon lands to conduct any field work in the summer of 2020, or at any time,” Schutt said. “This promise of jobs is surprising, if not misleading, because not a single landowner has granted AIDEA a right-of-way to build this road.”

“We remind you that AIDEA does not have eminent domain authority so this discussion seems to be one that you would have wanted to initiate before spending millions of dollars to complete the draft EIS,” he said. “It seems even more foolish to expend an additional $35 million on a field program without substantive discussions with us, an indispensable party.”