Road futures


The director of Alaska’s largest outdoor group has labeled the first major road proposed in the state in decades the potential beginning of “a wilderness gated community” near the southern edge of the Arctic Circle.

The observation by Rod Arno of the Alaska Outdoor Council is a reflection on the contentious development issues that have plagued a fledgling state in the decades since the passage of landmark federal legislation intended to resolve social and environmental issues and guide the largest of U.S. states into the 21st Century.

A generation on from the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement of 1971, Alaska is no longer the state hot to develop some of the 104 million acres of land granted it under the Statehood Act in 1959.

In many ways, in fact, the state is a fundamentally different place.

In 1959, it was a frontier outpost home to about 225,000 residents, a little more than half of the population of the Anchorage Metropolitan area today, on the edge of a sprawling wilderness. No direct road link connected the state’s two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks. The George Parks Highway wouldn’t open until 1971.

The drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage was a circuitous, 428-mile adventure via the Alaska, Richardson and Glenn Highways on bad pavement where there was pavement. The drive north from the state’s largest city to what was then as today one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions – Mount McKinley National Park (since renamed Denali National Park and Preserve) – went east on the Glenn Highway to Glennallen, north on the Richardson Highway to Paxson, and then west along the rough gravel of the Denali Highway to Cantwell before turning north again to the park.

There wasn’t a Starbucks to be found anywhere or Target or Home Depot or Costco or most of the elements of the American consumer economy most in Alaska now take for granted.

And other than the beginning of the construction of the Parks Highway,  little would change in the years before Congress approved and President Richard Nixon signed the Claims Acts that abandoned the old, U.S. reservation model in favor of integrating Alaska Natives into the capitalist economy of the United States.

Since then, integration has come to be viewed by some in the Native community as assimilation, a dirty word,  and a significant number of them have decided they want only the technological convenience of the American lifestyle and would otherwise prefer to continue living  off the land as in the past even if living off the land today is not at all like it was even 50 years ago.

Enter the state-backed Ambler Road, which if ever constructed would run 211 miles west along the southern flank of the Brooks Range from the Dalton Highway, a 1970s-era gravel road built as the North Slope Haul Road to allow Prudhoe Bay oil development. The road would end in the Ambler Mining District about 40 miles east of the village of Ambler, population 287, and only about 22 miles north of the village of Kobuk, population 144.

“The road is designed as an industrial access road to provide surface transportation to the Ambler Mining District,” according to the environmental impact statement prepared by the federal Bureau of Land Management. “The proposed road would not be designed or open for public access and would be open only to industrial traffic to support expanded exploration, mine development, and mine operations at mineral prospects throughout the District.”

The ban on public use of a publicly funded road across public lands reflects a decision made by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) to try to win local support by preventing general public access to isolated hunting areas. AIDEA is leading the push to reach the mineral-rich Ambler Mining District and contends an estimated $755 million to $996 million in construction and long-term operating costs can be collected as tolls from mining companies over the next 30 years to cover the cost of the road.

The reaction of the fewer than 1,000 people living in a handful of villages along or near the route of the road has been mixed.

“While there has been opposition at the local government level, there are many local residents — individuals — who support the project,” observed Arctic Sounder reporter Shady Grove Oliver last year.

“After all, mining has historically been a boon for the region. The (Northwest Arctic) Borough receives much of its funding from an agreement with Teck Alaska via the Red Dog Mine. A large percentage of the Red Dog workforce is local hire, as well, so the economic impacts of that industry on the area are undeniable.”

But the mining itself is only a part of the story, arguable a small part. The bigger issue comes in opening up the country.

Access, access, access

Arno expects villages near a new road would soon find a way to connect to it to gain the cost-advantages of cheaper shipping for goods and cheaper access to Fairbanks, and the state – which owns a huge amount of land in the area – could sell some of it to people looking to build exclusive wilderness retreats.

Writer Seth Kantner, who runs the gardening project for the Kotzebue-based Maniilaq Association and has long supplemented his income by writing about the virtues of living in a vast wilderness free of roads, offered a vision of this scenario for the National Parks Conservation Association when discussion of an Ambler road heated up in 2014.

A college-educated white man born to adventurous parents in a sod hut along the remote Kobuk River, he wrote about being back in that wild place and having a dream.

“In my dream,” he said, “condominiums stretched like ivory dice out onto the tundra. Gravel pits marred the distant slopes, low cement walls lined the riverbanks. A bridge arched over the river, and yellow dump trucks crossed the metal span. I stood in my buried doorway, sick and saddened.

“Unfortunately, this vision will not fade forever with morning coffee. Instead, my nightmare is on Alaska governor Sean Parnell’s desk, right now, at the top of his wish list. In the past three years he has funneled $25 million toward his quest to send bulldozers bashing a highway across the face of the Brooks Range, to build an industrial mining road to the copper deposits of the Ambler region.”

Kanter, now in his 50s, believes a road would destroy the Northwest Arctic, but admits it is already a “drastically changed landscape” from what he knew as a child.

“Now snowmobiles have replaced dog teams, and a maze of confusing federal, state, and Native land ownership overlays the map, with overlapping rules and regulations, and countless airplanes coming and going from villages, bringing service providers, Internet access, iPhones, and readily available Miley Cyrus YouTube videos, Doritos, Pepsi, Pampers, and all the rest,” he wrote.

But a road would be too much.  Kanter sees in it not the potential of employment in a region where work is hard to find, but the loss of “pristine land for a few hundred jobs and a line of dusty trucks hauling ore away to a foreigner’s bank. I can’t understand why anyone would tear open our last great wilderness, pollute land and rivers, and wreck Native cultures for copper, lead, zinc, and gold—minerals we’re busy throwing away in other mountains we call landfills.”

Native cultures in the Northwest as in much of rural Alaska are already in turmoil as they continue to struggle to adapt to the American cash economy in which it is difficult to live without cash. The dysfunction is such that Propublica and the Anchorage Daily News, in a bid to win a Pulitzer Prize, are in the middle of a lengthy reportorial project aimed at encouraging the state and federal governments to pay to put a policeman in every village in rural Alaska.

They have described rural Alaska as facing a “dire” crisis, though the law enforcement situation in rural Alaska is not all that different from that in most of rural America, where many communities lack local law enforcement.

“As many as 200 local police departments (have) closed since the late 1960s” in Minnesota that state’s Post Bulletin reported in 2017. “Some smaller towns outsource their law enforcement to either the county, a nearby city or, in some rare instances, go without a formal arrangement as alternatives to spending significant amounts of money operating their own police departments.”

Many rural Alaska communities have long outsourced law enforcement to the Alaska State Troopers given the state’s lack of cities and boroughs with organized police agencies. And rural Alaska has long had problems with crime, especially sexual assault, tied in significant part to substance abuse.

The ADN won its last Pulitzer in 1989 for a series titled “People in Peril” which suggested that most problems could be solved if people would just stop drinking.  The story reflected the Alcoholics Anonymous belief that the first step to making your life better is admitting you are powerless over alcohol and that it has made your life unmanageable.

In the wake of that series, more Alaska villages banned alcohol and the state stepped up efforts to apprehend bootleggers, but as the current Propublica/ADN series outlines not much changed.

Some might argue that the problem from which rural Alaska really suffers is similar to the problem with which the crime-plagued inner cities of St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago and elsewhere suffer – a lack of jobs.

Governing magazine last year reported that failing economies and substance abuse are the problems now leading to a climb in the crime rate across all of rural America.

“In Iowa, the overall violent crime rate rose by 3 percent between 2006 and 2016, but shot up by 50 percent in communities with fewer than 10,000 residents,” reporter Allan Greenblatt wrote. “Violent crime rates have doubled in rural counties in West Virginia over the past couple of decades, while tripling in New Hampshire.

“The explanations for this change are familiar ones. Not all rural areas are poor, but many have lost jobs as factories have closed and farming has become increasingly consolidated. Lack of employment has naturally led to increases in poverty, which is closely associated with crime. The opioid epidemic has hit rural America particularly hard, and methamphetamine remains a major problem in many small towns.”

Some parts of white rural America are starting to look like the failed reservations of the lower-48 which a Penn State University-supported project described as “The Land of Poverty, Crime and Suicide.”

The poverty, crime and suicide description fits some of rural Alaska. Penn State titled its project “Genocide the American Way.” The Claims Act was intended to avoid this.

The failed solution

Alaska’s long-ago, federally charted plan specifically rejected the reservation model. Instead, Congress and the leaders of the state’s then fewer than 55,000 Native residents agreed to create 12 regional Native corporations and 220 village Native corporations. The corporations were then deeded 44 million acres of land – an area bigger than the state of Idaho – and seeded with nearly $1 billion in capital.

The idea was the corporations would develop their lands and put their shareholders to work. The idea failed.

A number of the regional corporations went under and three were forced to reorganize under the oversight of the Federal Bankruptcy Court. The struggling corporations were saved, and all helped, when the late Sen. Ted Stevens convinced Congress to pass legislation allowing the corporations to sell their losses to other successful, primarily Lower 48 corporations looking for tax write-offs.

Stevens later convinced Congress to provide further legislation that allowed the corporations to form what were called Small Business Administration “8A corporations” eligible for sole-source contracts with federal agencies. Some of those corporations have been wildly successful.

Today, the top 18 most profitable companies in the state are Native-owned businesses, according to Alaska Business magazine although only five rank among the top-20 employers in the state, according to the Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development.

While the Native corporations were still struggling to find their footing in the business world, Congress set its sites on deciding how much of Alaska would be developed. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980 added more than 100 million acres of land to the national systems of parks, wildlife refuges, wild rivers, wilderness and other preservation categories to grow the amount of protected land in Alaska to 157 million acres –  an area 52 million acres larger than the state of California and only 14 million acres less than the nation’s second-largest state, Texas.

Including in the act was a special provision granting priority hunting and fishing privileges for rural residents pursuing fish and game for subsistence. The so-called subsistence provision was loosely and vaguely worded, and Alaskans have been fighting over it ever since.

Some in urban Alaska think it inherently unfair that who gets to hunt or fish is decided by zipcode. Some in rural Alaska believe they are now entitled to private hunting and fishing reserves where even tourists should be restricted because they can get in the way of subsistence activities. Some think the priority should apply to all Alaska Natives, urban or rural, who now number almost twice as many as in 1971. 

And it all plays into the argument over whether the state should build a new road or not. The conflicts that were to be settled by federal legislation long ago now seem less settled than ever.


















12 replies »

  1. So how will the state recoup the costs of the Ambler Road? The state recouped the cost of financing the 52 mile Red Dog mining road, because the mine went into production. The state recouped the costs of building the Dalton Highway, because due to oil production the state received many billions in oil revenues. But how will revenues, to cover the state’s costs of building the Ambler Road, be earned from exploration operations?

    Seems that it would be illogical for a company to produce mineral finds in this area if it meant trucking 800 miles to the nearest port, i.e. Valdez. Or 450 miles to Fairbanks and moving it by railroad to Southcentral AK. Seems that if a road was built, it should be from the Red Dog road and go east. Not from the Dalton and going west. That way if minerals were produced, it would be more economical to ship them out of state. I’m not advocating a road, just trying to understand how the current Ambler Road plan could pay for itself. And not be another State of Alaska money-losing boondoggle.

    • What’s oddly missing from this whole discussion, is the word “winter” (road). There’s already surface transportation into this region, and has been for decades … during each winter. D’oh!

      One, residents in the area are long accustomed to & rely on seasonal truck haulage & vehicular access. Two, this access is managed & restricted, as with the suggestion for a real, all-season Toll road.

      Yeah, sure, road service to various points along Alaska’s west and northwest coast (and port facilities there) has long been in the wings. Opponents are of course primed to jump on, ridicule to the best of their ability, any (outlandish, impractical, Nature-Violating) proposal that smacks of linking to the coast (which is what they’re most afraid of). Which is why we’re not hearing any of that.

      The Ambler road idea is a wedge-move. Residents in the area are already Remote Royalty, privileged characters of the Bush. They have high incomes, their community is highly developed, property values are high, employment prestigous. Approached with the right finesse, locals will support this … notwithstanding the obligatory gadflies.

      Red Dog and the coast, all in due course.

  2. “In many ways, in fact, the state is a fundamentally different place.”

    This sentence pretty much sums it up…
    Instead of two lane highways to access mining areas, the state once had a foot and dog sled trail that led to places like Petersville.
    Many prospectors would hike 30 miles or more from Talkeetna into the hills and look for gold.
    Today the government has all the claims and only multinational corporations who have millions to spend on projects are allowed the riches.
    “Man” can no longer strike it rich by scouting and hard work….we are forced to work for wages and toil at the hands of foreign bosses who rarely invest their profits back in Alaska.
    Yes, Alaska may be open for business but the corporate structure today is a far cry away from the golden opportunities that once existed here in the far North.
    Most long term residents now gravitate toward state “civil servant” jobs or run for political office.
    The blue collar “can do” attitude is replaced by a constant “right” vs “left” political banter that is sponsored and perpetuated by outside money.

    • Steve Stine laments,

      “Man” can no longer strike it rich by scouting and hard work….we are forced to work for wages and toil at the hands of foreign bosses who rarely invest their profits back in Alaska.

      On the one hand, who doesn’t want more independence? Be your own boss; maybe strike it rich?

      But otoh, early Alaskans also overwhelmingly worked for wages, or otherwise toiled at labors mostly to benefit investors … few of whom originated in Alaska. Wages were lower in terms of what had to be bought, and the effort required in paid-work was higher – usually, a lot higher. And the lowly had nothing like the part-measure of sometime-independence that we-lowly have.

      Today, otoh yet again, we have assets & resources far beyond those of old-timers. Everyone does. Common workers could not afford a horse, and walked everywhere … were restricted to a small area (and it was much worse, in AK and other remote settings). The car, the road, fuel in a hose, makes Alaska available to simple residents today, in a way that even the very wealthy couldn’t match, yesteryear.

      At one time, dairies were a going concern in Alaska. That was because shipping was too slow, and refrigeration was too expensive, to bring it from Seattle. But that doesn’t mean the average citizen got a good-deal on milk back then. Oh no! The equivalent of $20/gal might be pretty good. If you were lucky and were out trying your hand in one of the gold camps, it might be $100/gal. Buddies might pool-in, and you got one not-very-full cup, for say $10.

      Ok, let’s cut to the chase. You personally have pretty-direct access to an audience of, say in offhand round-numbers … 100 million people. That’s incredible really, and folks come up with their own paying claim a whole lot more often that the sourdoughs. The opportunity staring at you on the desktop as we speak, beggars anything the old-timer could hallucinate. To just to be in Alaska, being Alaskan, gives you several kinds of leg-up, head-start on everyone else, yeah-huh.

      Are you washing $100 pans online? No … but you know how to … you at least own a pan … even if it is hanging from a nail on the wall, collecting dust.

    • You can still stake a claim for gold, just Google staking a claim in Alaska. You can still go find a plot of land and make your own homestead You can do many things but you choose not to. It’s not multinational corporations that stop people from doing these things, it’s that there are easier things to do and we choose not to do the hard things.

      • Steve O…
        I agree that affordable land is still widely available in Alaska and I am quite aware with the “homesteading” procedure as I have developed several pieces of raw land…including the one that I currently call home.
        This does not speak to the financial opportunities as buying and developing land costs money….yes, they are worth value if you choose to leave and sell…but mostly they are an expense throughout our lives.
        The real estate prices on remote property currently here in S.C. are the lowest that I have seen in over a decade…many times you cannot even get what you put into a place.
        As for mineral rights…well, most claims that are affordable to common man have been dynamited, excavated, washed out and combed over.
        Virgin soil per say with possible mineral wealth gets locked up all over this state as we are not allowed to “mine” on our private property.
        The take at small placer mines is nothing like the hay day when men pulled nuggets the size of potatoes out of creeks in S.C.
        It turns into more a hobby for trust funders and retirees than a lucrative venture.

      • Steve,

        The saying “it takes money to make money” is a saying for a reason. Most gold miners from the goldrush era did not strike it rich and they did not leave the state with potato sized gold nuggets, but all of them spent a small fortune to have the opportunity to find gold. To this day virtually anyone can stake a claim and potentially find a fortune, and it doesn’t cost a small fortune to do so. Here is a site that goes into greater detail on the subject I think you would be surprised at the amount of virgin soil in Alaska, remember it is a big state!

        As far as land, the opportunity still exists for a person to go to an area of land with no lot lines, set four stakes in the ground and claim it as theirs. Does it cost something to do so, absolutely, the reason being is that it is public land up until the point that person buys it from the state…and they aren’t making more land.

        We are all subject to the laws of the here and now, we weren’t born in a time where we could travel to a far away land known as Alaska and claim land simply by putting a stake in the ground and registering with the local land office whenever we could…but we really aren’t that far off from still being able to do the same thing we just have more bureaucracy to deal with now as opposed to then.

      • Steve O…
        I understand your talking points well, but please explain to me why I should not be able to fully develop my private property for the largest personal economic gain?
        In remote property this would definitely include drilling for resources as well as mining for gold and other minerals.
        It is comical to hear a “hands off” Libertarian telling me to only explore where the “govies” tell me to go.
        If AK really wanted to retain the pioneer spirit we could develop our private property as we see fit.
        As it stands millions of remote acres can only add value through recreational cabins or hunting and fishing lodges….not much return on investment and not economically viable for the average hard working Alaskan.

      • Steve,

        The reason you cannot develop your private land how you so choose is because that is how our government was setup during statehood. You complain, falsely so, that “Man” can’t stake a claim or make something through hard work. I’ve shown where and how he can, using the system that is in place. Is it a perfect system, nope but it isn’t the dreaded multinational E-vile corporations to blame. While you may find it funny that a person who believes in libertarian values would know how the government works, I find that knowing how the system works and the opportunities that are available is important. I would certainly like to see our government structured differently in that would allow for more of the opportunities you speak of, but they didn’t ask my opinion during the statehood compact and I don’t have anyone knocking down my door to radically change how we manage lands in this state.

        Bemoaning the lost opportunities of the past and blaming boogeymen doesn’t really jive with the pioneering spirit. There is plenty of opportunity for those who would dare take it, I wouldn’t be upset if there were more. However, seeing how so few are making use of the current opportunities that are available today, I don’t see the driving force necessary to effect change and create more unused opportunities.

  3. First of all, the state of Alaska is heavily laced with officially recognized & legally protected and maintained Access Corridors – road routes. On the Alaska DNR Map Library page (direct PDF map link):

    Proposed Access Corridors with Significant Subsurface Mineral Resource Area

    This is a newer version of an older map which emphasized the wide routes through Parks etc and into Native regions, expressly from Day One to ensure that no one could ‘rope off’ sections of the State and prevent access into, across or development of them. A crowd of known suspects have practiced this Art, since Territory days (and before). Bright yellow lines show at a glance where roads might someday exist.

    Secondly, set-asides for access corridors – future roads, bridges, pipelines, utilities – where written into all the National Interest and Native Claims foundations, at the DNA level. Ongoing Land Selections had to work within & around the established provisos for future access.

    The Iditrod sled-dog race, for example, gains added security, even from opponents of mushing in general and the Race in particular, because the Iditarod Trail represents a barrier or obstruction to the construction of a highway through Rainy Pass … which is expressly what this corridor-route was set aside to facilitate.

    It doesn’t really matter whether the road goes into Ambler District, or not. All the State needs to do to maintain their claim on all these Routes, is produce an updated Map every few decades, and initiate the occasional Study. Anyone who has much of an option as to where they put downs roots in Alaska, or has the option to buy a remote recreational property … and values Alaskan Values … would do well to study that Routes Map, real_careful.

    [UPDATE. These remarks are in no way meant to counter the excellent points made by Art Chance, below. His comment appeared while I was writing mine.]

  4. Listening to Ted Stevens who had dreams of being minority leader after the ’80 election rather than listening to Mike Gravel and killing ANILCA may turn out to be the worst mistake modern Alaska has made. Reagan became President and the Republicans controlled the Senate for the first time since the late ’40s. There would have been no ANILCA. With a pro-Western states Department of the Interior, history might well have been written differently.

    Now we’ve had forty years of naïve and ideologically indoctrinated “environmentalists” getting a nothing degree in “environmental studies” or some such tripe and going to work for the US and state Governments. In a few years they have regulatory authority and often a law enforcement commission or ready access to people with law enforcement or ministerial authority to do their bidding. Today there is almost no distinction between the once sacrosanct parks and designated wilderness areas and the preserves, forests, and other federal lands that the US bureaucracy just couldn’t bear to let go of. For all intents and purposes it has all become wilderness and the only people who can use it or even set foot on it without harassment are federal bureaucrats and rich people. Arctic Alaska may be “America’s Crown Jewels,” but ordinary Americans are never going to see those jewels. President Trump has made some moves to try to restore some sanity to federal lands management, but the Left if it can’t impeach him will just try to outlast him.

    The best thing that ever happened to me was that nobody did much of anything to try to preserve my culture of ignorance, poverty, xenophobia, and subsistence agriculture in the rural South of the Fifties and early Sixties. We put it in museums and get sentimental about it in Facebook groups. After WWII, they built first the farm to market roads, then roads and industrial parks to attract industry, and they didn’t stand in the way of building the interstate highway system other than internecine squabbles about whose town it would get routed closer to. They lamented their kids leaving for the city and the closing of the small-town stores, but they didn’t stop it. Until the small towns were overwhelmed by brain-drain in the Eighties, they maintained a good educational system so that the kids could have a future somewhere; something we haven’t done in Alaska. Oh, and they didn’t maintain that educational system by just throwing money at it as Alaska has done. Until the late Seventies, early Eighties, it was almost entirely locally controlled and locally funded with property, sales, and use taxes and with minimal state and federal roles.

    I first saw many of my old playmates and classmates again after HS graduation at our 30th graduation reunion in ’97. Of the 128 members of my graduating class only a handful remained in our old hometown or even in the State or the South; two of us were in Alaska. A few of us had had scrapes with the law and with substance abuse. A fair number were in second or third marriages. Drugs and alcohol, Vietnam, and fast cars had gotten a few but for the most part they were a happy, healthy and seemingly prosperous lot. I went to the 50th in ’17. A few more had passed on. Quite a few were now retired and some of them came back to the old hometown out of sentiment, and especially for low cost life, though State taxes aren’t friendly to retirees. Most of us will live out our days somewhere else and our children and grandchildren somewhere else again. In ’15 I sold the last of my piece of family land first acquired for Revolutionary service in the Creek Cession in 1795; it’s not home any more. I used the money to buy my wife something nice and useful in today’s World Time moves on. In today’s Alaska, unlike an earlier Alaska that I came to love, far too many recoil from the future and want to stop time.

Leave a Reply