Alaska Native Tribes Demand Progress on Ambler Access Project

By Fred Sun and Johnetta Horner

Updated: May 9, 2022 Posted: May 7, 2022

There are several Alaska Native perspectives on the Ambler Access Project. Here is ours.

We represent two of the federally recognized tribes in Northwest Alaska. The proposed Ambler Access Project will cross our traditional homelands. We believe responsible development in and around these lands can benefit our people. The project has the potential to create jobs, provide road access to deliver fuel and other supplies that are currently being flown in at great expense to our people, and fund essential government services in our extremely remote area of the arctic.

Our tribal members have hunted, fished and gathered as stewards of these lands since time immemorial. We believe that those of us who live and use these traditional lands are the best advocates for the protection of animals, plants and the environment that have been central to our Iñupiat identity and way of life for generations.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, created more than 57 million acres of wilderness in Alaska, but also mandated a hold on federal lands between the mining district of Ambler and the Dalton Highway. ANILCA was passed in 1980, and 40 years later, in July 2020, the Joint Record of Decision, or JROD, granted that right-of-way for a 211-mile limited-access road. Work on the JROD began under the Obama administration, and career professionals at several federal, state, and local agencies were involved in completing the final environmental impact statement that is part of it.

We are committed throughout this long process. We have invested a lot of time and resources over many years and our commitment has shaped this project. For example, before the right-of-way application was filed, communities lobbied for the road to be a private industrial access road and formed a livelihood committee to advise the project.

We were very frustrated by the ministry’s decision to request a referral of the project for further analysis and its suspension of right-of-way permits. The JROD requires ongoing feasibility studies and includes stipulations and conditions that must be met before the project can proceed. Fieldwork planned for 2022 was part of the process to conduct these studies and meet these conditions.

We are laying the foundation for responsible economic development so that we can continue to live and prosper in our homelands. The ministry said this additional analysis is intended to benefit the tribes, but we believe delaying the project hinders our interests rather than advancing them. Instead, we focus on advancing the process defined in the JROD. It is through this process that our interests will be taken into account. So far, seven of the 11 tribes in our region have passed resolutions in support of JROD and the processes it puts in place.

It is critical that the ministry clearly identify additional tasks and have specific timelines for conducting further analysis of the livelihood, environmental, religious and cultural impacts of the Ambler Access Project. And we believe that some field work should be allowed to continue so that we don’t lose the short season for that work to be done.

The department is required to consult with federally recognized tribes and Alaska Native societies, and we expect regular updates on progress. We went too far and invested too much of our limited capacity in the process for this project to be shelved to gather dust or to be dragged around for years to come.

Fred Sun is tribal chairman and chairman of Shungnak Native Village and Johnetta Horner is the tribal president of Kobuk’s home village. Both are members of NANA Regional Corporation Inc.

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