The peaks and tundras of the Brooks Range in northwest Alaska—one of the most remote and pristine regions in the country—are home to vast populations of critical wildlife and vital community subsistence resources. Despite the area’s rich ecological value and importance to Tribal Nations, it has been at risk of becoming an industrial hub for Ambler Metals’ Ambler Mining District—four proposed, speculative mines which have not yet been permitted. In order to access this theoretical mining hub, the state of Alaska would have to develop Ambler Access Project—or, Ambler Road—a 211-mile private industrial road northwest of Fairbanks, extending through the Brooks Range and the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to the villages of Ambler, Shungnak, and Kobuk. This expensive project—which promises to destroy habitat and Tribal subsistence resources—would effectively be a road to nowhere, all for the speculative hope of developing resources that already exist in places that are easier to access and don’t compromise the same cultural and environmental values that Ambler Road would.
Given the Biden administration’s commitment to expanding clean energy, the mining industry behind the project has recently pushed claims that the proposed mines are necessary to achieving that agenda. Deep-pocketed mining companies such as Ambler Metals—who are seeking to develop the road on a joint venture with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA)—have tried to greenwash the project by painting the road as necessary to access the minerals that will advance the president’s clean energy agenda. This is not true and has become a common talking point for environmentally destructive mining projects in and near Alaska. The most recent environmental analysis for Ambler Mining District disputes the claims that this industrial corridor is key to domestic clean energy production. Industry assertions of the amounts of copper, cobalt, and zinc in this area are highly speculative and are not critical to global demand nor national security.
To meet the mineral needs for a clean energy transition, the United States must shore up processing and recycling capacity at home and with democratic allies abroad; it must secure supply chains domestically and abroad with strong standards for human rights, labor, and environmental protections; and it must prioritize the benefit of local stakeholders so that communities can gain from investments in the clean energy build out. But building an expensive and destructive road in one of the most remote regions of the world to a theoretical mining district will do nothing to help the United States remain competitive or meet climate goals.
On October 13, 2023—in order to rectify the insufficient environmental analysis from 2020—the Biden administration released the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Ambler Access Project, quantifying the proposed project’s impact on wildlife and local communities. The administration now has the opportunity to protect the environmental and subsistence values of Brooks Range by choosing not to allow industry to expand their grasp on U.S. public lands through this stretch of the Arctic.
History of development efforts
The efforts to begin mining in the Brooks Range stretch back more than 20 years. In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) allowed industry to begin considering development toward the Ambler Mining District, conditional on numerous provisions including ample environmental and economic analysis. In 2015, AIDEA submitted applications for Ambler Access Road. In 2020, the Trump administration approved Ambler Road based on an insufficient environmental impact statement, and despite objections from Alaska Native groups, issued a permit for the road in July 2021.
Following the 2021 permits, conservation organizations and Tribes each filed a lawsuit against the project due to the inadequate community consultation and lack of assessment of cultural and subsistence resources. These two lawsuits led to Biden’s Interior Department suspending the 2020 approval due to deficiencies in the environmental study. In September 2022, the Biden administration began their thorough environmental review process, assessing the full scope of impacts that the road could have. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released their draft supplemental environmental assessment in October 2023, which examined impacts from three potential routes for the proposed Ambler Access Project as well as a no-action alternative. While it did not indicate a preferred alternative, the analysis did provide a thorough depiction of the harmful impacts the project would have.
Ambler Road is a “solution” in search of a problem
Right now, Ambler Road is a road to speculation. Ambler Mining District does not exist outside of a proposal nor does it have the permits to exist. Three of the four proposed mines are only in exploration phases, with the fourth in a pre-feasibility study. Despite the mining industry’s attempts to frame Ambler Road as a necessary avenue to accessing critical minerals for the clean energy transition, the primary deposit at Ambler Mining District is copper—which is not a critical mineral—and other minerals are speculative or are not clean energy minerals.
There is no rationale in building a road to develop a mine for minerals that are either speculative in existence or not critical to U.S. clean energy development and national security, especially in a place that is crucial to Alaska Native communities and home to critical caribou and fish ecosystems. The company behind the project has only identified the presence of copper, lead, zinc, silver, and gold in the region. The BLM has cited independent studies to confirm this. The mining company has noted cobalt and germanium deposits, but these claims are only speculative and have no supporting data.
Why we don’t need new mines in remote Alaska for clean energy
Copper is primarily used as a conductor in high-voltage electrical transmission lines. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the authority on mining and minerals, has determined and repeatedly confirmed that copper—due to its abundance in the lower 48, notably in less remote and pristine landscapes than the Arctic—is not a critical mineral. Not only do the United States and allied countries have abundant supplies of copper, but this mine would not address global supply chain challenges caused by China’s role as a copper refinery. Additionally, there are less ecologically sensitive places to ethically mine copper, such as Voisey’s Bay Mine in Canada, where Vale has negotiated benefit agreements with the community and opened education centers in the area.
The Ambler Mining District does not contain any proven economic deposit of cobalt. The mining report for one of four proposed mines in the district previously listed cobalt, but in 2023, the company entirely removed cobalt from its mineral resource estimate. There have also been recent increases in the global supply of cobalt, to the extent that demand is causing low sale price. A new cobalt mine in Idaho was actually suspended due to lack of profitability. Not only that, but there is research underway to find cobalt alternatives, including a recent discovery that lithium-ion cathodes can be made with a cobalt substitute. It would not make sense to build an environmentally harmful road to mine a mineral that may not even be there—and which has unpredictable demand and value.
Trilogy Metals recently announced that there could be a potential for germanium as a byproduct of mining at one of the Ambler mining sites, but this remains another unconfirmed and uncertain resource—and absolutely not enough of a cause to build a road. No economic feasibility study has been completed to determine if the deposit is even profitable to develop, meaning that it could cost more to mine than the potential revenue it could bring in. Additionally, the applicability of germanium has heavily decreased over time, and it currently plays no role in clean energy development.
Zinc is used for galvanizing steel, which is part of a wind turbine. But the U.S gets 66 percent of its supply of processed zinc from Canada, which is both an allied country and a secure supply chain. And while the mining assessment of Ambler Mining District does include zinc, the deposit would produce less than 1 percent of the annual worldwide zinc production and would need to be shipped to East Asia for processing. The primary contention with zinc mining arises from the refining process, nearly 50 percent of which is done in China. Because of this, mining in this region for zinc would do nothing for U.S. mineral independence or supply chain security. Allied countries of the United States have plentiful zinc supplies, and mining at Ambler would not result in any positive gain.
Lead and gold:
Lead is not a critical mineral, and the threats that lead poses to ecosystems and public health through air and water pollution are far too risky. Gold is also not a critical mineral and serves the sole purpose of increasing the wealth for the richest. While gold and lead have been identified in the Ambler Mining District, extracting them would do nothing to advance clean energy, national security, or the United States’ competitiveness in the global supply chain.
Fiscal cost of Ambler Road
On top of the other reasons why Ambler Road is not a sensible development, the project would cost almost $2 billion and require more than 30 years of mining profit for the state of Alaska to break even on the investment. Banking on 30 years of profit when clean energy technology is advancing so quickly is irresponsible, and making this investment continues to put state priorities such as education, transportation, and other necessary infrastructure at risk due to tight state budgets.
Community, subsistence, and ecological impacts
Alaska’s Brooks Range is home to some of the world’s most ecologically vital wildlife, including caribou, moose, and wolves. It is also the only place on Earth where black, brown, and polar bears all live. Brooks Range is also home to hundreds of thousands of salmon, which are a vital part of Alaska’s economy and do more for state and local revenue than the Ambler Mining District ever could. The Biden administration’s recent draft environmental analysis found that the impacts of Ambler Road would far surpass previous expectations. The road partially cuts through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, one of the country’s most remarkable stretches of wilderness—roadless except for the Dalton Highway—which is home to caribou, muskoxen, and more than 145 species of birds.
The project would risk almost 17 million acres of wild and connected public lands; cut through 11 major rivers and 3,000 streams; disrupt migration routes for over 164,000 caribou; and go by 13 villages, 11 of which have passed opposing resolutions against the project. The sensitive wetlands of the area would be irreversibly changed by the project and the subsequent development that it would allow. The state would have to build 48 bridges and 3,000-4,000 culverts (a tunnel carrying a stream under a roadway) across Brooks Range. Ambler Road would cross rivers, waterways, and streams and would endanger and pollute the Koyukuk, Yukon, and Kobuk watersheds that communities, fish, and wildlife rely on. The environmental analysis noted that additional study would be necessary to quantify the full risk Ambler Road would pose for aquatic habitats, but it identified that salmon, whitefish, and sheefish habitat and spawning grounds would be negatively affected.
The analysis also found that the project would disrupt the migration route and habitat for 164,000 caribou in the Western Arctic Caribou Herd. Countless Alaskan communities rely on caribou and fish for subsistence, and risking this to build a road to nowhere would harm food security for these remote communities. The noise, light, and air pollution from the proposed Ambler Road and Ambler Mining District would impact the lives of thousands of residents throughout villages in the Brooks Range.
The sheer level of environmental and community disruption that the Ambler Access Project would cause is immense and is a clear reason for the administration to deny the project. Opposition against Ambler Road is notably united and widespread. For years, many Alaska Native communities in the area have expressed opposition to the project moving forward, including several petitions from Tribes against the road. Seventy-four Tribes and First Nations on the Yukon River watershed—including 55 Alaska Tribes and 19 First Nations in Canada—passed a resolution in strong opposition to Ambler Road. In 2021, 37 Tribal governments in the Tanana Chiefs Conference Board of Directors passed a resolution against the road. Outdoor recreation companies as big as Patagonia have channeled attention and resources to the fight for protecting the Brooks Range.
The Ambler industrial corridor would permanently alter Brooks Range and open the floodgates to increased mining operations across the region. The BLM identified 66 communities whose subsistence could be impacted by Ambler Road. Dozens of Alaska Native villages are downstream of Ambler Road and Mining District and would bear the burden of the imminent pollution to air, water, and wildlife—perpetuating historical environmental injustices and threatening age-old cultural practices. The approval of Ambler Road would not align with the Biden administration’s firm commitments to environmental justice and ecosystem protection.
The Biden administration must choose the no-action alternative for the proposed Ambler Access Project. The president has set ambitious goals to conserve record amounts the nation’s quintessential natural landscapes, and the state of Alaska holds some of the wildest lands in the country. Despite misinformation about the mineral resources at Ambler Mining District that the mining industry has been peddling, the administration has an enormous opportunity to reject these misleading claims and stand up for the Alaska Native communities and local communities who are united in opposing development. The ecosystem and subsistence resources in the region should be safeguarded for the current and future enjoyment of American communities.
* Author’s note on copper: The Department of Energy has a critical materials list that includes copper. While there is domestic demand for copper, the USGS specifically does not identify copper as a critical mineral because there are significant domestic sources, diverse foreign supplies, and the United States meets one-third of its demand through recycling.
The authors would like to thank Jenny Rowland-Shea, Nicole Gentile, Shannon Baker-Branstetter, Frances Colón, Chris Martinez, Will Beaudouin, Sam Snyder, Alex Johnson, the Defend Brooks Range coalition, and the local and national conservation leaders who are building impactful and equitable conservation solutions every day.