A Major Road Block for the Ill-Conceived Road to Ambler
Federal Permitting Agencies Reject AIDEA’s Application for the Ambler Road Project as Incomplete
Last month, all four federal agencies tasked with reviewing the 220-mile Road to Ambler project—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Coast Guard—rejected the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s (AIDEA) application as incomplete. Despite the State’s current fiscal crisis and the incredibly high price tag to permit, let alone build and maintain the road, AIDEA filed the application last November.
The proposed Road to Ambler would cross the Southern Brooks Range, cutting from the Dalton Highway west through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to the Ambler Mining District. The road would cross approximately 2,990 streams, impact thousands of acres of wetlands, and cut through key habitat used by grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep, moose, wolverines, and three different caribou herds, including the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, Alaska’s largest caribou herd.
AIDEA’s submission of the application follows an October 2015 decision by Governor Walker to green light the project. AIDEA assured the governor and public that the application was ready to be filed and would not require any new appropriations from the legislature until 2017. The federal agencies’ rejection of AIDEA’s application raises serious doubts about the accuracy of AIDEA’s representations on the readiness of the project and the lack of need for additional funding.
After the application was filed, the four federal agencies reviewed the application to ensure that it contained all the required information. The information required in an application is necessary for the agencies to conduct the required environmental analysis and for the public to meaningfully review and comment on the project. All four federal agencies identified significant gaps in the information. The amount of information missing from AIDEA’s application is surprising because the federal agencies were clear about what information had to be in the application. In other words, AIDEA knew what it needed to submit, but submitted an application that lacked the required information.
Of the serious gaps in the State’s application, several relate to a last-minute decision by AIDEA to reroute the eastern end of the proposed road near the Dalton Highway. Originally, AIDEA proposed a route through Evansville, Inc. land. But Evansville, Inc. vigorously opposes the road and passed a resolution opposing construction of any portion of the road on their land. To clear this hurdle, AIDEA shifted their route north across a Doyon inholding in Gates of the Arctic National Park, as well as through designated Wilderness in Gates of the Arctic, which is prohibited. Instead of waiting to gather detailed mapping and other information for this new route—which is necessary for their permit application—AIDEA plowed ahead and filed their application.
Examples of additional missing information include detailed maps of an alternative route through Gates of the Arctic, a full cultural resource analysis, and detailed information on all the wetlands and waters that will be impacted by the project.
AIDEA now has 30 days to provide the required information, ask for an extension, or withdraw their application. At the same time, the Alaska Legislature is working to find a solution to the State’s $3.6 billion deficit. Even assuming that AIDEA does not need any additional funding to complete the application, the permitting process is expected to cost at least another $4.2 to $6.8 million. AIDEA also estimates it will cost another $430 million to build the road, but other estimates peg the price tag at closer to $1 billion.
Right now, the State has another window of opportunity to halt this short-sighted development project before AIDEA spends limited state resources plugging the holes in an application for a project that should not be built.
Trustees will continue to work with a broad coalition of individuals, tribes, and local and community groups to protect the fish, wildlife, and special places of the Southern Brooks Range.