Trump-era decision on Ambler Road ignored tribes and subsistence issues, Biden admin argues

A map of the proposed routes for the Ambler Mine from the federal Bureau of Land Management.

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Just days after the state’s development bank and miners announced plans to spend nearly $60 million advancing the controversial Ambler Road and prospects, the Department of Interior has hit the brakes.

The federal agency is asking the courts to send the road’s right-of-way permit—issued in the final days of the Trump presidency and the target of a pair of lawsuits brought by tribes and environmental groups—back to the Department of Interior to correct “significant deficiencies” with how subsistence issues and tribal consultation were handled. While the decision is being reconsidered, the agency plans to suspend the permit. 

“The department has identified substantial concerns regarding the analysis of impacts to subsistence users under ANILCA Section 810 and the adequacy of government-to-government consideration with tribes and related consideration of impacts under the National Historic Places act to properties of traditional religious and cultural importance to federal recognized tribes,” explained a statement accompanying the court filing by Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority announced earlier this year a plan to partner with Amber Metals LLC to conduct exploration work on the road and mines this summer. A final investment decision on the 211-mile limited access road was expected sometime in 2024.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski warned that a decision was coming this morning in her annual address to the Alaska Legislature while touting the mining region’s potential to shore up the country’s need for strategically critical minerals.

“It will be a setback but it will not be a burial,” she said. “I acknowledge that this project is too important to us in this state, to the people in the region and really the country for the resource for us to just say that was a good effort. This is an important effort. We’re going to prevail on this and if there are setbacks, we want it to be very, very time limited.”

After the decision was announced, Alaska’s Republican delegation, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and officials at AIDEA released a flurry of statements criticizing the decision. The Biden administration’s criticism of the failure to involve tribes or consider subsistence issues was not mentioned in the delegation’s statements, but it was addressed in the release from the Dunleavy administration, which suggested that mining projects like this were actually key to preserving subsistence activities.

“Mining would also provide a needed source of revenue for communities in the region, many of which continue to practice subsistence fishing and hunting,” argued the release. “Alaska’s most vibrant subsistence cultures are those that have an economic foundation. Revenues from mining would also help fund public safety, education, and health services in Northwest Alaska.”

It’s not the first time that pro-development Republicans have argued that mining and drilling are solutions to the problems facing rural Alaska and Alaska Native communities. In the run up to the 2020 election, Southeast Republican candidate Leslie Becker came under fire for a blog post that argued in favor of resource development, writing “new jobs will come to [Alaska Native] communities and hearts will be lifted from alcoholism, drugs and despair.”

The motion in court is not a dead-end for the project and relatively limited in scope. It calls for the Bureau of Land Management to reopen the process with regards to the subsistence concerns and “meaningful and thoughtful consultation with tribes” in a timely manner. It’s specifically critical of the decision’s failure to sufficiently discuss the impacts on caribou habitat and fish habitats, which are both critical to subsistence activities. The statement is critical of the approval of the 50-year right-of-way permit under the Trump administration, noting that the decision making appears to be more driven by the need to approve the permit than following the rules of the process.

“The administrative record shows that the priority of achieving a programmatic agreement within the timeframe established by the department constrained the options for tribal consultation and that tribes were afforded only a secondary role in the ultimate adoption of the programmatic agreement,” explains the decision. “Such limited consultation with tribes is a deficiency necessitating remand of the decision for a renewed process, to include revisiting whether tribes should be included as invited signatories to a programmatic agreement.”

Find the motion here.

And the declaration here.

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