October 29, 2019
Gregory Dudgeon, Superintendent
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
4175 Geist Road, Fairbanks, AK 99709
Subject: Comments on the Draft Environmental and Economic Analysis (EE) for the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project
Dear Superintendent Dudgeon:
I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,700 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), a non-profit organization composed of retired, former, or current employees of the National Park Service (NPS). The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s national park system. As a group we collectively represent over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural and historic resources. Among our members are former NPS directors, regional directors, superintendents, resource specialists, rangers, maintenance and administrative staff, and a full array of other former employees, volunteers, and supporters.
Many of our members worked in Alaska during their NPS careers and are very familiar with the special management requirements of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, Public Law 96-487 (ANILCA). As a national parks advocacy group, the Coalition is very concerned about the high potential for adverse impacts of the proposed Ambler Road right0of-way (ROW) construction on the resources and values of Gates of the Artic National Preserve (Preserve).
We therefore submit the following comments on the Draft Environmental and Economic Analysis (EEA) for the Ambler Road project for your consideration. Please note: We have submitted similar comments to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regarding their Ambler Road Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).
LEGISLATIVE AND POLICY BACKGROUND
1) Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) – ANILCA Section 201(4) established Gates of the Arctic National Park (Park) and Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (Preserve) as units of the National Park System, whose stated purposes are as follows:
To maintain the wild and undeveloped character of the area, including opportunities for visitors to experience solitude, and the natural environmental integrity and scenic beauty of the mountains, forelands, rivers, lakes, and other natural features; to provide continued opportunities, including reasonable access, for mountain climbing, mountaineering, and other wilderness recreational activities; and to protect habitat for and the populations of, fish and wildlife, including, but not limited to, caribou, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, moose, wolves, and raptorial birds. (ANILCA subsection 201(4).)
ANILCA § 203 explicitly states that the administration of the Park and Preserve shall be in accordance with the Act of August 25, 1916 (39 Stat. 535), commonly referred to as the NPS Organic Act. (See section below regarding the Organic Act.)
Regarding Ambler Road, § 201(4) requires the Secretaries of the Interior and Transportation to jointly prepare an environmental and economic analysis (EEA) upon receipt of an “application” for a ROW permit to bisect the Kobuk River National Preserve Unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (Preserve) for the purpose of surface transportation “from the Ambler Mining District.” This same section incorporates procedural requirements found in other sections of ANILCA, including §1104(b), (c), and (e) and §1107 among others.
Per section 201(4)(d), the EEA is to be prepared jointly by the Secretaries “solely for the purpose of determining the most desirable route for the right-of-way and terms and conditions which may be required for the issuance of that right-of-way.” It further states that the EEA is to be prepared in lieu of an environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and that the “analysis” (i.e., the EEA itself) is not subject to judicial review.
Section 201(4)(d) goes on to state “[t]he Secretaries in preparing the analysis shall consider the following…(i) Alternative routes including the consideration of economically feasible and prudent alternative routes across the preserve which would result in fewer or less severe adverse impacts upon the preserve.” In other words, the EEA is to inform the Secretaries of the most appropriate, least damaging alternative route(s) for the ROW, as well as identifying necessary and appropriate terms and conditions for the construction and use of the ROW. As described in the Act, the proposed ROW must be, to the “maximum extent” feasible; compatible with the purposes of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve; and must “avoid or minimize” adverse impacts to the Preserve’s resources.
While the plain language of Section 201(4) appears straightforward, applying it to a project the magnitude of the Ambler Road proposal is not as simple as it seems. No similar development in U.S. history has ever occurred that would enable pit mining along the boundaries of 4 “units” of the National Park System in the headwaters of the most important sheefish river in the nation, bisecting for the first time America’s largest free-roaming caribou herd, and crossing almost 3,000 rivers and streams.
And while the EEA is to be prepared in lieu of a NEPA analysis, other applicable statutory requirements for Federal undertakings are neither waived nor relieved for the Ambler Road project under this section of ANILCA. This includes Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires Federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. It also includes Section 810 of ANILCA (“Subsistence and Land Use Decisions”), which requires Federal agencies having jurisdiction over lands in Alaska to evaluate the potential impacts of proposed actions on subsistence uses and needs
2) The NPS Organic Act – The Organic Act (or “the Act of 1916”) famously established the NPS “conservation mandate” and the fundamental purpose of “said parks, monuments, and reservations” (i.e., units of the National Park System), which purpose is
[T]o conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. (16 USC 1)
3) NPS Management Policies 2006 – Key sections of the Management Policies interpret the Organic Act and affirm the NPS priority of protecting park resources and values over visitor enjoyment, in general, and over specific “legislatively authorized or mandated uses” that may be included in a unit’s enabling legislation.
Section 1.4.3 of Management Policies states, in part:
Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant. This is how courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act.
Section 126.96.36.199 of Management Policies states, in part:
In the administration of mandated uses (such as the Ambler Mine Road), park managers must allow the use; however, they do have the authority to and must manage and regulate the use to ensure, to the extent possible, that impacts on park resources from that use are acceptable.
With the above information as context, we offer the following comments and concerns about the proposed Ambler Road ROW.
COMMENTS AND CONCERNS
1) In general, the ROW application process and analysis are fundamentally flawed in multiple ways – First, the “application” form itself, as developed by the Federal government and completed by the Applicant, must meet the requirements of subsection 201(4) and be in accordance with §1104(b)(1). At a basic level, the document must contain the information needed to effectively analyze potential environmental and economic impacts. However, in this case the route description submitted by the Applicant is so vague and the quality of information is so poor in some cases that no meaningful analysis is possible.
Second, under § 201(4), it is the Secretary(s)of the Interior and Transportation – not the Applicant – who must decide the most appropriate, least damaging route through the Preserve. This simply has not happened in this case. As a result, the Applicant’s route preference(s) OUTSIDE the Preserve are driving the decision on the route selection INSIDE the Preserve. As a result, the proposal is inconsistent with the provisions of § 201(4).
Third, the Application and therefore the EEA and DEIS are incomplete in their content regarding specific, potentially significant impacts. Alternative route descriptions, and therefore understanding potential impacts of the project, are vague at best, making it difficult for NPS and BLM to prepare the analyses necessary to comply with statutory requirements for federal undertakings. For example, in lieu of an actual Section 106 analysis under the National Historic Preservation Act (16 USC 470) of potential adverse effects on historic resources, BLM has prepared a draft programmatic agreement (Appendix J in the DEIS), in part, because, “BLM has determined that effects to historic properties cannot be fully accounted for prior to issuance of the EIS ROD.” (DEIS, p. J-3.) Similarly, the quality of the environmental impact analysis required under the National environmental Policy Act (NEPA) suffers because of the uncertainties and inadequacy of the project description. For example, the potential for major impacts of the ROW on the two largest caribou herds in North America – the Western Arctic and Porcupine River herds – is inadequately described and analyzed.
Last, but not least, issuing the ROW permit to a third party Applicant such as the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), as proposed, rather than to the mine developer itself, is highly questionable and clearly inconsistent with the intent of subsection 201(4). AIDEA is a public corporation of the State of Alaska that does not have any agency-relationship with the actual mine operator. As a practical matter, there is nothing in the Applicant’s (AIDEA’s) submission to demonstrate it has the capacity to build, operate, maintain, and restore an Artic road of this massive scale. If the ROW were to be issued to AIDEA, rather than the actual operator, it will create a problematic “arms-length” management situation that inevitably compromises NPS’s ability to manage construction and future use of the road. It will also reduce the likelihood of effective enforcement of permit conditions; and increase the likelihood of future pressure(s) to allow new, potentially unlawful uses of the ROW (i.e., the road itself) beyond those stated in the legislative purposes of the Preserve.
Furthermore, no good faith reading of the law imagined such an arrangement where the holder of the ROW permit “from the Ambler Mining District,” as described in § 201(4), would be anything other than the entity actually doing the mining and/or surface transportation across the haul road. No one imagined that the Department of the Interior would permit a middleman to sell public access by the truckload and retain the compensation itself. The Senate committee report, 96-413, 1979, specifically uses the phrase for the beginning of this ROW process: “Should the need arise for a transportation corridor. . .” (p. 147). (Emphasis added.)
These and other flaws in the process and the analysis are described in more detail below.
2) Under § 201(4), it is the Secretary(s) – not the Applicant – who shall decide the appropriate ROW route through the Preserve – The first page of the EEA states that the route(s) were selected by the Applicant (i.e., not the Secretary(s)). Thus it appears that the respective Secretary(s) have done nothing but accept whatever the Applicant identified, and have failed to perform their statutory duty of determining the most appropriate route(s) themselves. Of grave concern is that AIDEA was created by the State legislature “to provide financing for Alaskan businesses to expand the economy of the state and provide jobs for Alaska.” As such, it has no particular expertise for managing or implementing mining or surface transportation operations. So why would the NPS defer AIDEA to choose the most appropriate route through the Preserve?
§ 201(4) mandates that the Secretary(s) select a route that “result[s] in fewer or less severe impacts upon the [P]reserve.” (Emphasis added.) In practical terms, this means the Secretaries should first determine the most appropriate ROW route INSIDE the Preserve, which would then be the basis for determining the most appropriate complementary route option(s) OUTSIDE the Preserve. However, under the current process, it is the Applicant’s preferred route alternative(s) OUTSIDE the Preserve that appear to be driving the route selection decision INSIDE the Preserve. Clearly, this backwards reasoning is inconsistent with the clear intent of Section 201(4) of ANILCA and an abrogation of the responsibility assigned by the statute to the Secretary(s).
Furthermore, virtually every other common-sense route alternative suggested by the public during the scoping process has been dismissed as “considered but rejected” in the DEIS, with the briefest of explanations. The rationale for these rejections is superficial at best and appears to be inconsistent with the law. Over and over, the DEIS – which largely governs the substance of the EEA – cites the Applicant’s “need” (which in reality is simply a “preference”) for the project as described. This is NOT a criterion of § 201(4) nor consistent with ANILCA§1107 regarding “Rights-of Ways Terms and Condition.”
In brief, BLM’s deference to the Applicant’s preferred ROW route OUTSIDE the Preserve has forced NPS to consider relatively limited and disadvantageous routes INSIDE the Preserve, despite the clear wording of § 201(4) and § 1107 to the contrary. As a result, the decision process is fundamentally flawed and out of sequence.
The resulting sequencing is extremely problematic because of the significant differences between NPS’s and BLM’s legislative mandates with regard to resource protection. As previously discussed, NPS’s “conservation mandate” under the Organic Act of 1916 places a strong priority on the protection of resources and values over visitor enjoyment and other uses. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) serves as BLM’s “organic act” and is the legal foundation of BLM’s “multiple use” (rather than “conservation”) mandate. In brief, FLPMA declares that BLM will manage public lands for multiple uses and values. As such, it authorizes extraction and use of resources, such as mining, oil and gas development, and grazing, which are typically prohibited under the NPS Organic Act within units of the National Park System such as Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.
In effect, the driving factor of the overall ROW route selection process is based largely on the Applicant’s route preference OUTSIDE the Preserve on lands managed by BLM under FLPMA which has a lower standard of legal protection than lands within the Preserve managed by NPS under the Organic Act. Deferring to the Applicant’s route preference on BLM-managed lands inappropriately and unnecessarily jeopardizes the Preserve’s resources and values, which, in fact, merit a higher level of protection under applicable laws.
The only practical solution for BLM and NPS to correct this “upside down” sequencing is to take a step back and first determine the preferable route INSIDE the Preserve in accordance with § 201(4). Once the most “desirable” route through the Preserve has been identified, it would then be reasonable for AIDEA and BLM to proceed with identifying and evaluating the necessary “connecting routes” on BLM managed lands west and east of the Preserve. BLM should also identify and consider at least one viable route alternative that remains entirely OUTSIDE the Preserve to determine if such a route could provide the most environmentally and economically prudent, as well as functional, access road “from the Ambler Mining District.” As discussed in a later comment, Alternative C in the DEIS, a route entirely outside the Preserve, appears to be designed for rejection in the final decision process. A truly viable ”outside” alternative should be identified and evaluated.
3) In considering the ROW request, NPS must follow § 201(4) requirements for conserving the resources and values of the Preserve – Congress, recognizing both the NPS conservation mandate under the Organic Act and ANILCA’s intent to provide for future transportation access to the Ambler Mining District, considered at length the required level of protection for the Preserve’s resources and values should the road eventually be built. Although § 201(4) speaks for itself, the Application, the EEA, and the DEIS for the Ambler Road muddy the clear purpose of the law. It would be prudent for the responsible decision makers to reacquaint themselves with the reinforcing instructions of the Senate Committee that wrote the final language of the ROW provision in the law.
Senate Committee Report 96-413, 1979, is typically considered as the standard for ANILCA legislative history because, especially for the ROW, the language of the Committee Bill was adopted for the final Act precisely. However, when it came to determining the proper level of protection of the Preserve for the construction and management of the Ambler Road ROW, the full Senate and the Congress insisted on a higher standard than the Committee. As background, the Committee Bill first proposed a minerals-friendly national “recreation area” designation (or “NRA”) to be managed for multiple “interests” (p. 147) including access, mineral potential, and State v Federal proprietary interests, so that “utilization and disposal of minerals or other natural resources are permitted” consistent with the Committee amendment. This is similar in concept to the “multiple-use” public lands system administered by BLM under FLPMA.
Such a regime would have provided for less restrictive, ”multiple-interests” access and industrialized use of the Preserve. However, the multiple-interests approach was explicitly REJECTED by the full Senate and Congress. The full Congress rejected the idea of a “national recreation area” and the full Congress replaced it with the higher standard of “national preserve.” In rejecting the multiple-interests standard, Congress required that the Preserve be managed “in the same manner as a national park” (§ 1313). In this case, the Preserve is to be managed similarly to the ultimate wilderness exemplar in the National Park System, the Gates of the Arctic National Park, with the primary difference being that sport hunting shall be allowed in the Preserve.
This means that in the EEA and the DEIS there should be a discernible difference and higher standard of protection in the environmental analysis, terms and conditions, and management of the Ambler Road ROW INSIDE the Preserve under NPS’s “conservation mandate” compared to what is lawfully permitted OUTSIDE the Preserve under BLM’s “multiple use” mandate. Regrettably, given this important contextual difference, neither analysis (the EEA nor the DEIS) takes the requisite “hard look” at potential and foreseeable impacts to resources under NPS management within the Preserve.
In essence, the EEA and DEIS fail to recognize in their assessments that the natural and cultural resources and values of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve have been determined by Act of Congress to be of national significance and heightened value to both current and future generations. Furthermore, the potential adverse impacts to the visitor experience if the Northern route were to be selected are consistently underplayed, while the environmental advantages of the less damaging Southern route are consistently obscured.
If the Northern route were to be selected, impacts would likely include impairment of the visitor experience of solitude and scenic beauty, as well as adverse impacts on the environmental integrity, of Nutuvukti Lake. As proposed, the haul road could be used by as many as one ore-truck every 3 minutes at the headwaters to the Lake. The risks posed to Preserve resources and values by the Northern route are enormous compared to those of the Southern route, yet the contrast and scale of the potential damage cannot be found in the EEA or the DEIS. Given the conservation mandate of the NPS Organic Act, along with the statutory purposes of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, a proper analysis and proposed action would accurately describe, starkly contrast, and seek to avoid the scale of intrusion and adverse impacts that the Northern route would have for visitors and Preserve resources compared to the Southern route.
4) In many instances, the quality of information in both the EEA and DEIS is deficient, thereby raising concerns about the quality of the overall analysis – In many cases, the information in the Application as well as in the EEA and DEIS is incomplete, particularly with regard to potential resources impacts within the Preserve. As a result, the Secretary(s) do not have the proper information or analysis to comply with the Preserve’s § 201(4) and §1107 mandates.
In terms of considering an appropriate range of alternatives, there are charts in the DEIS improperly dismissing the “considered but rejected” route alternatives, but no such comparable side-by-side chart showing the insights needed to determine the most “desirable” route. The analysis fails to adequately consider and analyze the comprehensive impacts that would result from the proposed road enabling extensive open pit mining in a remote location in Alaska while simultaneously disturbing North America’s two largest animal migrations. And it fails to adequately consider and analyze likely impacts to resources and visitor experience opportunities in both the Koyukuk and the Kobuk sections of the Gates of the Arctic.
The Applicant claims that this is a 10% design. However, the location and design of the proposed route(s) are so vague it is impossible to accurately describe or analyze what the potential impacts would be on the ground. For example, the Applicant has never walked the entire route. The Applicant has no real idea how many streams and rivers are crossed. The Applicant reportedly flew over the routes, and is postulating at the total, but will not verify a specific number. The Applicant does not know exactly where the road and bridges and culverts and abutments will go. The Applicant claims it has no mining plan for the development enabled by the road, but surface access to the mining district is only statutory purpose for allowing the ROW through the Preserve. Without clarity of what is actually being proposed for the project, there can be no effective “analysis” as required by law.
In contrast to the considerable vagueness of the proposal, the Secretary(s)’ statutory responsibility to “determine” the route that “would result in fewer or less severe adverse impacts upon the preserve” is crystal clear under the law. Contrary to ANILCA §1104(b), the Ambler Road application process did not “elicit such information as may be necessary to meet the requirements of this title and the applicable law with respect to the type of system concerned.” The Secretary(s) determination must be based upon more complete information than has been provided thus far in the process and a more thorough and careful evaluation of credible route alternatives. The purpose of these reviews is to document potential impacts and determine the most feasible, least environmentally damaging route; not to “rubber stamp” a Canadian mining company’s development plan.
Lastly, but importantly, public disclosure of potential impacts is required under the law; and the public deserves to see the agency’s best available information and analysis of ALL the potential impacts for the project. Yet, over and over again, the EEA and the DEIS offer a perfunctory impact assessment along the lines of: “to the extent there is an impact, there will be an impact.” Repeating the same empty circular words in bulk simply amplifies the shortcomings in the information and analysis provided in the EEA and DEIS.
5) The Applicant’s vague description of the proposed ROW alignment(s) is an inadequate basis to analyze potential impacts to the Preserve – Issuing of a ROW permit based on the incomplete information in the Application and the resulting partial analysis in the EEA and DEIS would be premature, fraught with uncertainties, and pose numerous risks to Preserve resources and values. A few examples of deficient information, identified by NPS in the EEA, include:
- (p. 11) “Precise and detailed locations of the ROW are not currently available for either alignment. Proper studies and planning need to take place in order for a proper evaluation. The alignment of the ROW is expected to change once detailed studies are available.”
- (p. 16) “…additional engineering and design are needed to assess the effectiveness of culvert and bridge designs as far as hydrology”. Page 16 warns that there is insufficient data on whether culverts are adequate to pass water flow. This area is known for occasional heavy rains, run off and flooding that have destroyed portions of villages.
There are numerous other information deficiencies, as well as well-founded concerns about potential impacts and risks of constructing a lengthy haul road ROW for heavy truck use in a remote location in Alaska that is already experiencing adverse impacts from global warming. Thawing permafrost is frequently mentioned as a growing concern in Alaska. This is especially true for this project, which is located on the south side of the Brooks Range where the permafrost is thin and already near the melting temperature.
Absent more specific information and analysis regarding the proposed ROW alignments, the totality of risks and impacts of the project have not been fully described or analyzed, and are not well understood. However, the risks and impacts are likely to be high since similar projects in Alaska have already experienced major problems.
For example, the comparisons of the Ambler Road project to the Red Dog Road are not reassuring. The environment of the proposed Ambler ROW is much warmer and wetter, with the permafrost closer to the melting point. In contrast, Red Dog is in a cooler location yet has already experienced problems when the surface is disturbed. Truck accidents and spillage of concentrate continue to plague Red Dog and are difficult to clean up even with specialized vacuums. This past summer the state DNR and DEC publicly stated that clean-up efforts are not adequate for the hazardous concentrate that has been spilled. Soils have been disturbed; permafrost has melted leaving thaw lakes; and the contaminated product has drained into the surrounding area. With any mine haul road in remote locations in Alaska, the potential for spills, contaminated run-off, and adverse impacts to water quality are major concerns.
We urge NPS and BLM to require the Applicant submit a more detailed and accurate description of the requested ROW alignment(s). Such information would serve as a more valid basis for conducting the proper planning and analysis PRIOR to the agencies issuing a ROW.
6) The analysis of potential impacts to outdoor recreation, wilderness character, and Wild and Scenic River resources is incomplete and inadequate – As stated in the EEA, “visitors discover intact ecosystems where people have lived with the land for thousands of years, and the park remains largely unchanged except by forces of nature. For millennia nomadic hunters and gatherers traveled the mountains’ forested Southern slopes and the Arctic Coast.” Human travel in the area of the proposed projects still takes place year-round by people wishing to gain an experience that is nearly lost everywhere else on the planet.
Once humans have modified or impaired remote natural landscapes and waterways, that environment can never again provide people with the same kinds of human experience opportunities that are currently available in the wilds of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Such experiences, which are becoming increasingly rare in the modern world, include: being in a place where people are not the ones in control; experiencing what it is like to be a true part of nature, not a controller of it; and experiencing the enormous solitude and scale of the natural landscape seldom found outside of public lands in Alaska. Once such a landscape is modified or damaged by man, or wild rivers are dewatered for construction and bridged, the fundamental character of designated Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers would be lost forever.
The scale and significance of the resources and values at risk are profound. As stated succinctly in the Senate committee report (96-413, 1979, p. 146):
[T]he wilderness values of the Gates of the Arctic are paramount and provide a special value to the National Park System.
Even among the extraordinary resources and values found in other units of the National Park System, those at Gates of the Artic are truly special and unique. Sadly, the proposed action threatens the Preserve with long term, likely irreversible change – a potential derogation of its resources and values unlike anything else ever experienced in the National Park System. Yet none of the compelling significance of the Preserve’s resources and values is evident in the EEA or the DEIS. We urge NPS to reconsider how to better describe the quality and significance of the resources and values at risk; and to prepare a more accurate and meaningful analysis of the impacts. Simply put, the simplistic numerical description of the Preserve’s resources and rather perfunctory and repetitive assessment of impacts fundamentally fails to articulate the significance and richness of the resources at risk.
The EEA and the DEIS also fail to acknowledge that AIDEA’s proposed route(s) across the front of the Western Brooks Range, across the boundary of the Gates of the Arctic Park and Preserve, through lands along the Koyukuk River (approved by Congress for inclusion in the Wilderness Preservation System), and across the Kobuk River, (designated as a Wild River under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act) pose a serious threat to the defining character of these special resources. Under applicable laws and policies, the character of designated or proposed Wilderness must be preserved. We are particularly concerned about the potential impacts to the Kobuk’s “Wild” status, which under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act means “those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted.” (Emphasis added.) Once bridges are constructed across the Kobuk, it is no longer “inaccessible except by trail”; is more susceptible to spills and contamination from truck traffic; and may no longer meet the defining characteristics of is designated “Wild” status. The potential impacts to these special resources need to be fully acknowledged and reassessed in the EEA analysis and in the DEIS.
The Visitor Experience Section of the EEA states “Under the proposed Ambler road, recreational opportunities for visitors would not change once the construction is complete, but the quality of the opportunities would be different in areas near the road.” This characterization is grossly misleading. Once a road is placed through Wilderness and bridges built across Wild and Scenic Rivers, and trucks will carry heavy loads of ore up and down this road creating associated impacts, and the “wilderness” and “wild” river experiences currently available will inevitably be impaired across a large portion of the Preserve traversed by the road. Outdoor recreation visitors seeking this paramount experience will be displaced and may seek other areas in an attempt to gain an experience that was once available in this location. There may be no other location that offers the unique characteristics of the Gates of the Arctic.
Once physical roads and bridges are constructed, and noise and dust from trucks and pollution related to industrial development occur, the Preserve may no longer provide the same “wilderness” or “wild” experiences of solitude and environmental integrity mandated in the law. Road construction and ongoing road use by mining operations is likely to cause “visual and auditory intrusion on the natural setting” that result in significant, long-term adverse impacts. The unique place known as the Gates of the Artic would never be the same.
A pertinent issue that is also not adequately addressed in the EEA or the DEIS is the potential for economic losses to wilderness guiding companies, pilots, outdoor equipment stores, businesses in Coldfoot, Arctic Village, Bettles, Fairbanks and even Anchorage. People come to the Brooks Range from all over the world for a specific experience. And they spend a lot of money obtaining their dream. They buy specialized outdoor equipment. They most often use chartered planes to access the area. If they don’t have the skills and abilities to travel in remote country, they will often hire specialized wilderness guides.
If the EEA and DEIS were to include actual visitor use data and track the funds associated with these year-round outdoor recreation activities, the potential adverse economic impacts (of building the road) to the State of Alaska would be shown to be substantial.
We urge NPS and BLM, in their respective analyses, to reconsider how to better describe the nature and quality of the resources at risk within the Preserve; and to prepare a more accurate and thoughtful evaluation of the potential resource impacts.
7) The range of alternatives considered in the DEIS and EEA and related impact analysis is inadequate and should be expanded – In general terms, the ROW request is for a road connecting “from” (and to) the Ambler Mining District to the Dalton Highway. As §201(4) (b) states, “Congress finds there is a need for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road) and the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection.
While there is a presumption under §201(4) that the Ambler Road ROW “shall” cross Preserve, the reality is that the “need” for surface transportation access to the mining district could also be satisfied by other route option(s) that avoid the Preserve entirely.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), BLM must consider a “range of reasonable alternatives,” which, in our experience, should be more than just the Northern route and the Southern route within the Preserve. Notably, in the DEIS there is one such option, Alternative C: Diagonal Route to the Dalton Highway, which would not involve Preserve lands. As described on p. 2-4:
- “Alternative C is a 332-mile alignment (274 miles traverse BLM-managed land), with its eastern terminus at MP 59.5 of the Dalton Highway. It approaches the District from the southeast, primarily across BLM managed lands.”
Also described in the DEIS (p. 2-8) are AIDEA’s two proposed routes through the Preserve:
- “Alternative A is a 211-mile alignment (25 miles traverse BLM-managed land), accessing the District from the east, with its eastern terminus at Milepost (MP) 161 of the Dalton Highway. It runs almost directly west to the District across primarily State-managed, BLM-managed, and GAAR lands.”
- “Alternative B is a 228-mile alignment (25 miles traverse BLM-managed land), with its eastern terminus at MP 161 of the Dalton Highway. It follows the same alignment as Alternative A except it loops to the south to pass through GAAR at a location that crosses less National Preserve land and is farther from the Park and Wilderness boundary.”
We appreciate BLM’s effort to develop at least one route alternative that would remain outside the Preserve, in contrast to AIDEA’s two route proposals inside the Preserve. However, frankly, because of its considerable length and BLM’s simplistic approach to impact analysis, Alternative C seems designed to be rejected in the final decision. As summarized on pp. 2-8 and 2-9 of the DEIS, Alternative C would run “approximately 50 percent longer (332 miles) than the other alternatives. While the driving distance to Fairbanks would be similar, the longer road construction length Ambler Road means correspondingly greater acreage impacts to vegetation, wetlands, and wildlife habitat; greater impacts to streams and wildlife movements; and greater uses of various tracts of (almost exclusively) public or Native corporation lands.” (Emphasis added.)
In making the simple quantitative conclusion that (to paraphrase) “the longer road must mean greater environmental impacts” (compared to other alternatives), the analysis fails to consider both the quality and protected status of the resources that would actually be affected by each alternative. For example, road noise would be more damaging along the edge of a wilderness area compared to a similar level of road noise from a road located much further away from wilderness. Disruption of a significantly larger caribou herd’s migration route would be more damaging than similar disruption of a much smaller caribou herd’s route. Damage to resources within a National Preserve that are to be conserved under the NPS Organic Act and applicable section(s) of ANILCA would be much more serious than a similar level of “damage” to similar resources managed under FLMPA. And so on. The point is the impact analysis is fundamentally flawed if it does not consider qualitative differences in resources based on relative quality and importance, location, and jurisdiction. And it does not.
Of the two route options identified through the Preserve, Alternative B (the Southern route) is the only alternative presented that is worthy of further consideration. As described previously, § 201(4) of ANILCA directs the Secretary(s) to determine the “most desirable route for the right-of-way and terms and conditions which may be required for the issuance of that right-of-way.” The section goes on to state, in part, that “The Secretaries in preparing the analysis shall consider…economically feasible and prudent alternative routes across the preserve which would result in fewer or less severe adverse impacts upon the preserve… and measures which should be instituted to avoid or minimize negative impacts and enhance positive impacts.” (Emphasis added.)
The Southern route would encumber 18 miles of the Preserve, versus 26 miles for the northern route. Just on that basis alone, the Southern route is the more desirable route. And the Southern route would also have fewer and lesser adverse impacts on nearly all the resources of concern, as summarized below:
- Impacts to the Western Arctic caribou herd would be less because less of the herd’s range and habitat would be affected
- Impacts to wetlands would be less because fewer total wetland acres would be affected
- Impacts to the unique natural feature, Nutuvukti fen, would be avoided by selection of the Southern route
- Impacts to archeological sites would be less because the Southern route has significantly fewer sites
- Impacts to visitor use would be significantly less because most visitor use is in the Walker Lake and Nutuvukti Lake areas, which are very close to the northern route. A road on the Northern route would be a permanent visual and aural intrusion into a prime visitor use area. The wilderness values of this area would also be degraded, including in the Congressionally designated Wilderness just north of the Northern route.
To truly consider a “range of reasonable alternatives” as required under NPEA, we urge BLM to develop a new, more viable route alternative that remains OUTSIDE of Preserve lands. Ideally, it would be of more moderate length than Alternative C, so that it cannot be so easily dismissed based on the “more road equals more impacts” rationale. In addition, the analysis for each alternative should carefully consider qualitative as well as quantitative impacts.
Lastly, if BLM decides not to develop a more viable third alternative, the evidence in the EEA and DEIS clearly shows that, of the two routes within the Preserve, the Southern route (Alternative B) would have fewer and less severe adverse impacts upon the Preserve.
8) The analysis of the potential direct and compounding effects of climate change on resources is incomplete and inadequate – We appreciate that in the EEA NPS acknowledges climate change and its effects on permafrost. Similarly, the EEA describes the direct impacts that the road and its bridges, culverts, maintenance yards, airstrips, camps, and other associated disturbances, will likely have on permafrost (and hydrology). However, it is highly likely that a warming climate and continued melting of permafrost will impact almost EVERY resource of concern discussed in the EEA and DEIS. Such impacts have already been occurring, continue to occur, and are well documented. Yet the analyses fail to link this fundamental factor to the potential exacerbation of the road’s impacts to various resources. Furthermore, the effects of melting permafrost, accelerated by the road construction and its use in the project area, will be ecologically widespread and dramatically adverse.
Ultimately, climate change will likely exacerbate many of the resource impacts of the Ambler Road project. Because of this, we urge NPS and BLM to describe the contribution of climate change impacts to specific resources under the various impact topics. Lastly, climate change will likely contribute to the comprehensive and cumulative effects of the project; and those effects should be discussed in the appropriate sections of the respective documents.
9) The analysis of potential impacts to cultural and archeological resources is incomplete and inadequate – The study area and the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve and National Park are considered to be an integral part of a cultural landscape. A cultural landscape is not a simple list of objects. It is a place, a place of memory and character-defining resources that tell a story of meaning over time. The NPS has typically recognized the category of cultural landscape in its §106 evaluations. However, such a concept and analysis is generally lacking in the EEA and DEIS.
Everyone who has a sense of “home” knows what a cultural landscape is; but for this exercise we are provided with a list, not a reasonable description of a place of meaning. Many Alaskan anthropologists, archaeologists and historians (including Lew Binford, J. Louis Giddings, Michael Kunz, Richard Nelson, and Bill Brown) describe the Gates of the Artic as a dynamic landscape of experience. We know from the stories they recount about the wide ranging and coordinated movement of caribou and corresponding movement of the native peoples that traditionally depend upon the herd for sustenance.
Yet the DEIS, and presumably the EEA, consider a window of only 10 years to identify critical caribou migration patterns and habitat, when the life of just one caribou may be 13 years. The DEIS maps show the Western Arctic Caribou as being located closer to the village of Kobuk and far away from the village of Evansville. Yet we know the people of Evansville moved there from Kobuk because they were experiencing a lack of caribou. Those who have studied cultural landscapes understand that changes in caribou migration patterns and corresponding human adaptation to those changes can occur (and have occurred) in a relatively brief period of time – in some cases within a matter of years, not decades. Yet, the ROW permit is proposed for an inordinately long period of 50 years – multiple lifetimes for the caribou and nearly a lifetime for most humans who depend upon the herd for subsistence. The considerable potential for significant long-term impacts to both caribou migration dynamics and related human adaptation to available subsistence resources is real; and should be disclosed and evaluated in the respective documents.
Finally, in terms of procedural requirements, we are concerned that BLM has only prepared a draft programmatic agreement (Appendix J in the DEIS) in lieu of an actual § 106 analysis of potential adverse effects on historic resources. As explained on p. J-3, “BLM has determined that effects to historic properties cannot be fully accounted for prior to issuance of the EIS ROD.” In other words, BLM is unable to adequately assess potential adverse effects to cultural and archeological resources due to the vagueness of the project description and related information provided by the Applicant. The appropriate solution seems obvious. Require a more detailed project proposal from the Applicant so that the agencies can complete a proper assessment of affects BEFORE issuing a Record of Decision approving the route and other parameters of the project.
We urge NPS and BLM to provide a more complete and thoughtful analysis of potential impacts to this important cultural landscape, including potential disruption to the migration route of the Western Arctic Herd Caribou and related adverse effects to subsistence users.
10) The analysis of the respective agency operational impacts and costs is incomplete and inadequate – Both the EEA and the DEIS fail to grasp or fully describe the costs of the project to the federal agencies involved. As proposed, the affected agencies would “work with the Applicant” to monitor, collect data, and to deal with road maintenance and use issues. However, what will that level of federal involvement cost the American taxpayers annually or for the life of the project? How will understaffed federal agencies be able to fulfill this additional workload? Undoubtedly, these demands will be immediate and constant, and will continue for the life of the road.
We believe that NPS clearly understands its mission under ANILCA and the Organic Act, which is to manage the Preserve lands unaltered and in perpetuity. The EEA should reflect the NPS’s mission focus. The EEA should describe the road’s true operating costs – in terms of ALL the public resources that would need to be committed to properly implement and manage the ROW in accordance with the NPS “conservation mandate.” However, the current draft EEA leaves many questions unanswered, including: To what extent will the NPS operating budget (i.e., American tax dollars) be used to fund monitoring and enforcement of the ROW? True costs would also include data collection, mitigation and eventual restoration related to the project. Will the Applicant pay the full costs of gravel mined from federal lands? How much will it cost (and who will pay) to close and reclaim the gravel pits when they are eventually closed? Where will the materials be obtained for future repairs to and elevation of the road section within the Preserve when it inevitably subsides due to melting permafrost? How will NPS police and manage unauthorized use of the road?
In brief, because administration of the road has the potential to be an expensive and time consuming endeavor for agency staff for decades to come, the respective analyses should more carefully describe the amount of agency staff time needed to properly implement and administer the ROW over the 50-year life of the project. Similarly, the full spectrum of direct and indirect budgetary impacts should be described. Once the true operating costs have been determined, we urge BLM and NPS to include a mandatory funding mechanism in the Terms and Conditions of the respective ROW permits that would ensure the Applicant reimburse each agency for its costs to administer the permit.
11) Neither the EEA nor the DEIS provide a meaningful economic analysis of the proposed action, including the estimated cost of constructing, maintaining and eventually restoring the ROW through the Preserve – To summarize the economic issues that are inadequately addressed in both the EEA and DEIS:
- The financial commitment from the responsible mining company should be assured and certified absolutely to avoid State and Federal agencies ending up with a road with significant environmental, social and cultural impacts that is never used as intended.
- AIDEA states the companies mining in the Ambler Mining District, not the State of Alaska, would pay for the construction of a road. The ROW and the permit should provide that any public financing of the road would void the ROW and reopen the process and re-scope the proper holder of the ROW. Therefore BLM/NPS should withhold a ROW until the applicant, the responsible mining company, demonstrates an economically feasible project with performance bonding, loans or financing bonds in hand, and collateral for repayment, proving credit worthiness and accountability.
- ANILCA intended that the operator of the mine be the Applicant for mining or ROW permits, not a state corporation like AIDEA. To assure the most accountable and compliant management of a mining operation and ROW, the Applicant needs to be the company that is planning on doing the work. This is the only way to assure project viability and compliance. Also given Alaska’s current fiscal situation, this would be the prudent way to proceed.
- BLM/NPS should not approve a ROW if the mine operators cannot assure the entire operation is economically feasible.
- Developing a private use road using public lands, funding and resources is not a realistic or legal plan, especially when it would be connected to the larger transportation grid of North America.
- What is now called the Dalton Highway is a good example of broken or unrealistic promises that were made that it would remain closed to the public.
Only a thorough economic analysis, as the law requires, could demonstrate whether or not Ambler Road, as proposed, is truly “feasible” for the Applicant to construct, maintain, operate, and ultimately restore the ROW through the Preserve. However, the Consolidated Application prepared under §1104(b)(1) fails to provide or “elicit such information as may be necessary to meet the requirements of. . . the applicable law [§ 201(4) and the NPS Organic Act].” In essence, the Applicant did not adequately disclose the expected costs and proposed uses of the ROW. As a result, the application is incomplete and inadequate.
Absent an effective analysis based on good information, NPS appears to take as “given” that the two proposed routes through the Preserve would be “feasible” to construct and maintain, simply because they have been proposed. However, an actual economic analysis is necessary to ensure the ROW is “feasible and prudent.” For example, the estimated cost of the road as discussed at the scoping meetings was about $300-400 million; yet at a recent public meeting we heard the figures are much higher. And a cost estimate of up to $1 billion has been seen recently in the news media. Given state’s economic position, does AIDEA (State of Alaska) have the credit-worthiness to sell bonds for this project on the intended basis that no bond holder may hold AIDEA accountable for default? (See Footnote 4) What revenues are expected by the State? Why is the mining company not financing the road?
In addition, there is no discussion on the potential economic impacts of the road and how it could affect local communities or the state economy. There is no discussion of the substantial amount of material (i.e., gravel) needed to build the road. Presumably, the gravel would come from sources owned by the federal government. Will the federal government charge the Applicant for gravel used? Or will the federal government subsidize the construction by giving this valuable resource to the Applicant for free? And might the gravel from federal lands be in turn sold by the applicant as occurred at Red Dog? How would this be consistent with applicable law or policy?
Simply put, the analysis fails to demonstrate the project is economically feasible. Absent such information, why would NPS consider issuing a ROW for a potentially unfeasible project, given the clear statutory requirements governing the ROW and “applications” under § 201(4) and § 1107?
If a ROW for an unfeasible project were issued, it seems likely the Applicant would seek relief from the presumably reasonable and prudent ROW terms and conditions that the agencies should, under the law, impose upon the Applicant for a project of this scale and impact. Such “relief” could presumably occur with less transparency or public process than the EEA and the DEIS are required to provide, leaving a third-party development corporation (AIDEA) holding a 50-year ROW despite the fact that the Applicant cannot adequately demonstrate the capacity to carry out the mining access purposes itself spelled out in the law. The lack of credible and specific economic feasibility information in the EEA and DEIS creates serious doubt about the reliability of the Applicant to carry through on the proposal and creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. These shortcomings must be addressed before the agencies move forward with issuing the ROW.
Additional questions: While AIDEA plans to issue revenue bonds for the project which do not incur debt to the State, what is the effect to the Alaska state budget if there is no mine development after the road is built and the loans cannot be paid back by the company? Who would guarantee repayment to the bond investors if the level of road use and projected revenues fall short of AIDEA’s expectations? What of the environmental damage from eroding culverts and inevitable frost-heave of a road like this over vulnerable fish habitat? If the mining project itself were to be abandoned for any reason, while or after the road is constructed, an environmental clean-up of a potentially unprecedented scale would presumably be the responsibility of the Applicant. Has AIDEA demonstrated the financial capability to fulfill its future responsibilities if such an event were to occur?
No one would want to see the road started but not completed because of the lack of financial resources. The fact that the mining company needs AIDEA to fund the request for a ROW and is dependent upon AIDEA to finance the building of this non-public road to the mining district is a major red flag that raises serious concerns about the economic feasibility of the proposed mining development. The American economic system is based on supply and demand, not on state government subsidizing transportation access for a foreign mining company. Why is so much state government support needed, if the proposal is demonstrably feasible? Clearly, it is not. Furthermore, both state and federal governments have already spent millions of dollars studying the environmental and social impacts of the project. If the overall project were feasible and prudent, the mining companies would be paying for these planning expenses as companies do for other projects around the state.
A proper economic analysis should be prepared to answer these questions BEFORE public lands are impacted.
If the project cannot be completed and managed properly for financial reasons, a ROW permit should NOT be issued until such an analysis is completed. This is the law. This is why the prudent standard is required.
Lastly, cost estimates repeatedly cite the Red Dog mine as a model; whereas we demonstrated in our 2018 scoping comments that Red Dog is in no way comparable in scale or impact to the Ambler Road proposal, which would cross 3000 rivers and streams and rivers and bisect a caribou herd. The estimated number of ore trucks per day – as low as 80 a day or as many as one every 3 minutes – could not possibly provide enough revenue to reimburse the Applicant for the tremendous expenses of building and maintaining a 200+ mile road in a remote location, with almost 3000 bridges and culverts, mining the gravel, mitigating the vast environmental impacts, policing the route to prevent non-compliance, coordinating industrial rail use of 80-car trains with the scenic Alaska Railroad passenger trains, cleaning up spills, coping with defaulting mining companies, and much more.
12) The EEA and DEIS fail to adequately consider “connected actions” or the comprehensive and cumulative impacts of all aspects of the proposed project – Both the EEA and DEIS fail to document the likely comprehensive and cumulative impacts of the proposed action on the two largest caribou herds in North America, which are the Arctic Herd (AKA Western Arctic Caribou) and the Porcupine River Herd.
Other connected actions include impacts from all potential mines in the area, transport of heavy metals to Fairbanks and to port, and associated impacts and costs of the foreseeable range of connected actions needed for the project. Huge quantities of fuel to operate an onsite mineral concentration operation would need to be transported to the project site from locations hundreds of miles to the south. There is already considerable North Slope development that relies on transporting materials via the Dalton Highway. Proposed oil and gas exploration on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be a significant new use of the Dalton Highway and needs to be factored into the cumulative analyses. The Red Dog Mine transports millions of gallons of fuel via ship and over a much shorter road for its operation. The risks involved in long distance transport of hazardous materials over remote roads in an extreme climate are substantial. Yet, fundamentally, these risks are not adequately disclosed or analyzed in either document.
In effect, the EEA and the DEIS largely ignore the potential cumulative effects of current and proposed actions in the vicinity of the project area. The analyses also fail to explain where and how the ore would be transported to market (would it involve truck transport to Fairbanks and railroad to Anchorage or to another Southern port?); and the associated costs as well as the environmental impacts of all that transportation. The trucks on the haul road are going to be competing with all the trucks that serve the North Slope. There is no analysis showing that the respective roads are capable of handling the increased traffic volume without further AIDEA subsidies that may not exist.
Further, the capacity of Alaska Railroad to ship all this partially concentrated ore mixed with overburden through Fairbanks, the Mat-Su Valley and Anchorage must be evaluated. What are the noise levels and how will that effect people living near the tracks? Can the port that will be selected handle the increased traffic and specialized containers? Freight rail use is notoriously in conflict with passenger rail in Alaska. What are the areas of conflict and what are the ameliorations AIDEA expects to take to compensate the Alaska Railroad? What of the heavy new demands on the maintenance of the rails, and the likely adverse effect on the reliability of passenger scheduling? What would be the loss to the state’s tourism economy if the iconic Alaska Railroad service is perceived as unreliable or entangled with slow moving, 80-car freight trains?
13) Certain aspects of AIDEA’s ROW request for related activities within the Preserve are inappropriate and inconsistent with ANILCA – To restate a key point in the Preserve’s legislative history, the Senate committee report (96-413,1979) language on ANILCA indicates the ONLY purpose of the ROW is to provide surface transportation access to the mining district, and not for other activities, such as gravel pits and a construction & maintenance camps.
Of significant concern is that according to AIDEA’s website, it was created by the State legislature “to provide financing for Alaskan businesses to expand the economy of the state and provide jobs for Alaska.” As such, it has no particular expertise in managing or implementing mining or surface transportation operations. This leads us to question AIDEA’s request to construct a variety of ancillary facilities (gravel pits, construction camps, an airstrip, etc.) on Preserve land that are not explicitly authorized under ANILCA and are otherwise inappropriate in a unit of the National Park System. Are such facilities actually needed for successful implementation of the project? If so, they should clearly be located OUTSIDE the Preserve. But is AIDEA simply being opportunistic and trying to “piggyback” additional development on Preserve land that would support AIDEA’s economic development mission?
14) The Red Dog Mine road is NOT a valid comparison to the proposed Ambler Road in terms of scale, impacts, and economic feasibility – In the DEIS the Red Dog Mine is cited as the example AIDEA would follow in terms of its role in developing the Ambler Road. Yet, with Red Dog, the mining company (not AIDEA) is the entity responsible for compliance and completion of permit requirements. While AIDEA arranged financing and provided some of the financing for the road, state agencies are, in fact, the regulators of the permit requirements for Red Dog. For Ambler Road, will AIDEA even be around in 50 years? That depends on the state administration and interest in funding the agency’s proposed projects. In the context of the Ambler Road ROW, AIDEA should NOT be considered the responsible party that is capable of reliably following through on the actions of a mining company for the50-year life of this project.
In reality, the responsible party needs to be financially capable of funding the entire project to completion in order to avoid a “spec” road being built for the purpose of mining, but then being used for other unauthorized purposes within the Preserve in conflict of the requirements of ANILCA. It appears that “scope creep” is already anticipated since the DEIS mentions allowing non-mining commercial traffic to use the road to supply two wilderness lodges, as well as nearby villages. Also mentioned is the possibility of “off-shoot” roads connecting to the main ROW to allow non-mining supplies to be delivered to other destinations.
Of concern is that Red Dog is repeatedly cited in the analysis as a model that would be followed in minimizing impact; but the reality is that for years adverse impacts have occurred and continue to this day. For example, migrating caribou are often diverted or delayed when encountering the road. They are sometimes run over by the large heavy trucks that are unable to stop quickly enough, even with road restrictions. This can happen day or night. And other wildlife have been attracted to the road camps where human food is available.
Last but not least, as we have mentioned several times already, only a mining access ROW is mandated under § 210(4). Use of that ROW through the Preserve for non-mining purposes would be entirely inappropriate based on the Preserve stipulations in ANILCA.
15) In the absence of meaningful analysis, the EEA and DEIS rely on sometimes misleading and relatively meaningless statistics – The documents tend to present basic quantitative information, such as numbers of acres of wetlands or number of rivers and streams to be crossed, as “analysis.” In actuality, there is little, if any, qualitative analysis provided to inform the decision process. For example, there is no discussion of whether crossing a particular wetland or stream at one location would be less damaging or environmentally preferable to other alternative crossings. Considering the proposed route could involve nearly 3,000 river and stream crossing, such comparisons are essential to draw well informed conclusions regarding the relative impacts of each alternative. Given the length of the proposed road and the number of potential stream and wetlands crossings, careful route selection is of utmost importance for minimizing and avoiding potential adverse impacts to resources and values of the Preserve.
An example that we previously discussed is BLM’s simplistic quantitative conclusion (in the impact summary for Alternative C) that, because Alternative C would be a much longer road than A or B, the amount of impacts under C would necessarily be greater. The obvious flaw in this conclusion is that it fails to consider tangible qualitative differences in the assemblage of resources that would impacted at the different locations affected by the respective alternatives.
Another example of the meaningless comparisons presented in the DEIS involves BLM comparing the Caribou of the Western Arctic Herd with Red Mountains Caribou Herd. The Arctic Herd, more recently described as the Western Arctic Herd, is perhaps the most iconic herd of migrating animals in North America. Throughout history, the Arctic Herd has been the largest and most vulnerable to population fluctuation of our caribou. Only the Porcupine River Caribou herd is sometimes comparable, but typically smaller in size, than the Arctic Herd.
Most compellingly, the Western Arctic Herd are the caribou cited for protection in the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve’s enabling legislation. In contrast, the Red Mountains herd is relatively small, comparatively static, and not cited in any national park or preserve legislation as contributing to the national significance of a unit of the National Park System. Yet, the EEA makes no meaningful distinction in its analysis of the relative size and significance of the respective herds. Based on the perfunctory analysis of the DEIS, a herd is a herd and a caribou is a caribou.
In brief, the required planning documents for the project present relatively meaningless numbers that fail to illuminate qualitative differences and consequences of choices. In doing so, they provide an inadequate basis for decision making.
16) Given the scope and scale of the project, a detailed mitigation plan should be included in the planning documents as an integral part of the action alternatives – Appendix C of the EEA briefly describes “Applicant Proposed Mitigation Measures” but none are proposed or required by NPS. If the Secretary(s) are to determine the most appropriate route through the Preserve in order to minimize impacts to Preserve resources, then NPS, not the Applicant, should determine the appropriate mitigation measures necessary wot comply with § 201(4) and the NPS Organic Act. Such measures should not be negotiable with the Applicant but should REQUIRED under the Terms and Conditions of the ROW permit. We are disappointed that NPS has not chosen to play a more active role in determining appropriate mitigation measures to minimize adverse impacts to the Preserve.
NPS should follow BLM’s lead, as described below, and develop appropriate mitigation measures and stipulations that it would require of the Applicant under the ROW permit.
In contrast, Appendix N of the DEIS lists “BLM Proposed Mitigation Measures” and “Standard Stipulations” required by BLM. Many of the BLM measures and stipulations make sense and are appropriate for a project of this scale; however, it remains to be seen if, how, and to what extent BLM would incorporate the “proposed” measures into actual requirements. To assure the public that the proposed measures and stipulations will actually be incorporated into BLM’s oversight of the ROW, we recommend that Appendix N be re-characterized as a “proposed mitigation plan” and that it be incorporated by reference into Chapter 2 as an “element common to all action alternatives.”
17) The proposed action appears to set the stage for allowing unauthorized use(s) of the ROW, uses that are NOT mandated or explicitly authorized in ANILCA – § 201(4)(b) explicitly states that “…the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection” (the subsection includes the purposes of the Preserve); and, further, states explicitly the need for such access “from the Ambler Mining District.” [Emphasis added.] In other words, with regard to the proposed road, § 201(4) only authorizes access through the Preserve to and from the mining operation in the Ambler Mining District. It does NOT provide for other forms of access, which are otherwise addressed in Title 11 of ANILCA.
As background, the portions of Title 11 applicable to § 201(4) are procedural only. Title 11, read whole, provides for all manner of transportation, including improved rights-of-way for snow machines, for all terrain vehicles, for roads, for landing strips, for transportation of water, for transmission of electronic signals, and for general transportation. [See §1102.] These means of access are not applicable to national preserves. Similarly, access to inholdings is treated separately under § 1110 and should not to be confused with § 201(4) access “from the Ambler Mining District.”
Despite the clear direction provided by Congress in § 201(4), the EEA (p. 9), the DEIS, and the Application would apparently open the road to all manner of commercial uses, including “any additional commercial usages allowed under permit.” The EEA indicates that these “additional commercial usages” could be on the order of “one truck a week” without identifying the types of commercial uses NPS may consider acceptable and without proposing appropriate use limits or restrictions.
Again, nothing in § 201(4) authorizes other forms of commercial use or access beyond those normally permitted in the Preserve. All other forms of access must be only those related to the legislated purposes of the Preserve. For example, the Preserve generally prohibits commercial access other than for visitor services authorized under the NPS Organic Act and the Preserve’s enabling legislation. Examples of compatible commercial services include those which provide for “opportunities for visitors to experience solitude…[and] the natural environmental integrity and scenic beauty of the natural features; to provide continuedopportunities…for…wilderness recreation… and to protect habitat for and the populations of, fish and wildlife, including, but not limited to, caribou…and…wolves.” [Emphasis added.]
In contrast to the above uses authorized under § 201(4), other sorts of commercial uses such construction of airstrips or radio and communications towers, mining of gravel, or extraction of water are NOT authorized in the Preserve. If the Applicant intends in the future to seek broader access than provided under § 201(4), then an alternative route should be considered that avoids the Preserve entirely.
Furthermore, absolutely no road support facilities, including work camps, gravel pits, and airstrips should be located within the Preserve or next to the Kobuk Wild River regardless of which route is selected. The purposes and protections of these areas are defined mandated under applicable statutes, including the NS Organic Act, ANILCA, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Said purposes and protections are not waived or relieved by § 201(4)’s provision for the Ambler Road ROW through the Preserve.
Subsection 201(4)(d) of ANILCA requires that the Secretaries consider “…measures which should be instituted to avoid or minimize negative impacts and enhance positive impacts.” And subsection 201(4)(e) requires that the ROW be issued in accordance with the provisions of §1107. In turn, §1107 requires that:
(a) TERMS AND CONDITIONS –The Secretary…shall include in any right-of-way issued pursuant to an application under this title, terms and conditions which shall include, but not be limited to–
(1) requirements to insure that, to the maximum extent feasible the right-of-way is used in a manner compatible with the purposes for which the affected conservation system unit, national recreation area, or national conservation area was established or is managed;
(2) requirements for restoration, revegetation, and curtailment of erosion of the surface of the land;
(3) requirements to insure that activities in connection with the right-of-way will not violate applicable air and water quality standards and related facility siting standards established pursuant to law;
(4) requirements, including the minimum necessary width, designed to control or prevent–
(A) damage to the environment (including damage to fish and wildlife habitat);
(B) damage to public or private property; and
(C) hazards to public health and safety;
(5) requirements to protect the interests of individuals living in the general area of the right-of-way who rely on the fish, wildlife and biotic resources of the area for subsistence purposes; and
(6) requirements to employ measures to avoid or minimize adverse environmental, social or economic impacts.
(b) WILD AND SCENIC RIVERS SYSTEM.–Any transportation or utility system approved pursuant to this title which occupies, uses, or traverses any area within the boundaries of a unit of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System shall be subject to such conditions as may be necessary to assure that the stream flow of, and transportation on, such river are not interfered with or impeded, and that the transportation or utility system is located and constructed in an environmentally sound manner.
Despite this clear guidance summarized above, AIDEA’s proposal for the Southern route would necessitate a bridge being constructed cross the Kobuk Wild River. It would also locate a large material site, a permanent camp, and an airstrip right next to the Kobuk River within the Preserve. These facilities are not authorized INSIDE the Preserve and therefore MUST be located OUTSIDE the Preserve, not on NPS lands.
A large material site is not explicitly provided for INSIDE the Preserve under ANILCA or any other applicable law, so in accordance with § 206, it is prohibited. A permanent camp and airstrip located within the Preserve and next to the Kobuk River (a Congressionally designated Wild River) would significantly and permanently degrade this portion of the Preserve and Kobuk Wild River. There would be unavoidable significant adverse impacts to resources and to the overall protection of the Preserve and Wild River. Road support facilities are unnecessary and completely inappropriate in the Preserve and next to the Wild River. These facilities need to be located outside the Preserve, not on NPS lands.
NPS policy is to locate such road support facilities outside of NPS units. The only exception is for situations where there is no feasible alternative to locating such facilities on NPS lands. It is only 18 miles across the Preserve on the Southern route. These 18 miles of road can feasibly be constructed, maintained and operated by material site(s), a camp, and an airstrip located OUTSIDE the Preserve.
As a result, under the applicable laws NPS must deny AIDEA’s request to locate ROW-related material site(s), a camp, and an airstrip INSIDE the Preserve. In addition, these specific aspects of AIDEA’s ROW proposal should be explicitly prohibited under the Terms and Conditions of the ROW permit.
Given the many concerns described above, the only practical solution for NPS and BLM to adequately address them is to take a step back and follow the law in accordance with § 201(4). Once the Secretary(s) have determined the most “desirable” route INSIDE (and through) the Preserve, then it would be appropriate for BLM to proceed with identifying and evaluating the necessary “connecting routes” OUTSIDE (i.e., west and east) of the Preserve. If the Applicant wishes to use for road for other than mining purposes, it would be prudent to consider a route alternative that is located entirely OUTSIDE the Preserve. In any event, given the special resources of the Preserve, the combination of route(s) selected to provide access across NPS-managed and BLM-managed lands to and from the Ambler Mining District should reflect the most environmentally appropriate and economically feasible alternative; not simply the mining company’s preference.
1) The ROW permit should NOT be issued until a mining plan and mining permits are approved by all necessary parties– To finance and approve a ROW across public lands (especially National Preserve lands), before a mining plan is developed and necessary permit approval is obtained is risky and inappropriate for all parties involved. Especially since this road is specifically for access for private (potential) mining development. A change in global mineral prices or discovery of easier to recover minerals in other parts of the world could quickly change interest in a development in such a remote and expensive area to conduct these activities. When properly evaluated, it is likely to be determined to be a very risky and expensive project even with all the government support proposed. A ROW should not be issued until there are more assurances that a road really needs to be built for the mining potential.
Lastly, the ROW permit should only be issued to the mining company that would be the long-term developer of the project and could competently serve as the responsible party for complying with the terms and conditions of the ROW permit over the 50-year life of the project. Third-party entities such as AEIDA should NOT be issued the ROW permit. AIDEA was created by the State legislature “to provide financing for Alaskan businesses to expand the economy of the state and provide jobs for Alaska.” As such, it has no particular expertise for managing or implementing mining or surface transportation operations.
2) Terms and Conditions of the ROW Permit – We recommend that terms and conditions of the permit for a ROW include the following:
- Provide, consistent with the law, a permit for a mining access ROW only.
- Provide that the ROW is non-transferrable without approval of the NPS and BLM.
- Require an annual performance plan and report among the terms and conditions.
- Terms and condition of the ROW permit will need to include a requirement for no use of the roadway, especially by ore trucks, during the caribou and wolf migrations.
- The NPS should require that a ROW permit be issued for a specific term commensurate with the anticipated duration of viable mining operations
- Limit the terms of the ROW permit to access directly related to mining of the Ambler mineral belt.
- Provide that all management and compliance costs to the NPS be paid by the ROW permit holder.
- Prior to issuing the ROW permit, develop and approve a bonding and escrow system to assure that all costs are guaranteed. Such a system may also eliminate the financial need for the chaos of a pay-as-you-go “pioneer road.”
- Provide a complete program in advance of issuing the ROW permit for full compliance with §1107, particularly for subsection (a)(2) the requires the “restoration, revegetation, and curtailment of erosion of the surface of the land.” Restoration in Arctic Alaska is difficult, and requires planning, resources, and professionalism. To verify that this program can in fact lead to the complete removal, restoration, and revegetation of the ROW, the program needs to be peer-reviewed and certified by an independent group. The escrow and bonding program, called for above, shall include in advance all costs necessary to implement this plan to be fully compliant with §1107.
- NPS needs to develop a plan that clearly requires restoration and includes the standards of what constitutes sufficient dismantlement, restoration and reclamation of the road corridor before approving the ROW. There would need to be a cost estimate provided by AIDEA and approved by the NPS and BLM.
- A Restoration Fund in Escrow needs to be required and created. The costs for restoration must be included in the tolls and retained in escrow. The ROW permit holder should be required to maintain those funds in an altogether separate escrow account so money would be available at the time restoration occurs.
- The applicant is proposing a phased development of road access, beginning with minimal road construction (a “pioneer road”), then an improved one lane road, and lastly a two lane road. It should be a built-in assumption of the terms and conditions for any issued ROW that the proposed two lane road will ultimately be built, and the terms and conditions of the ROW must require the holder to do comprehensive mitigation from the beginning phase.
- Provide that if the mode of transportation authorized is not built within a set period of years of issuance of any ROW permit, the permit shall be reviewed and either terminated or an updated set of terms and conditions reflecting all new information and technologies is required.
- Prior to issuing the permit, develop, review and approve a joint operation plan in coordination with the BLM, coordinating work and responsibility so that all terms and conditions, mitigations and ameliorations in this process are fully complied with. These should include reliable assurances that no public access from the Dalton Highway is permitted.
- The project as proposed states there will be no hunting by project employees so as not to compete with local subsistence uses and sport hunters. Include this provision in the Terms and Conditions.
- Provide for company disciplinary review for any employee violating these standards, and include in the company’s disciplinary review committees trained representatives of the local rural residents so that complete transparency while adhering to necessary confidentiality are maintained.
- Provide that no access be permitted during periods of caribou and wolf migrations through and across the approved road. This triggering mechanism for closures, upon notice by NPS or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorities, should be incorporated into the Annual Performance Plan.
- Provide that the Preserve may not be used for gravel or water sources.
- Allow no stopping in the Preserve, other than for emergencies.
- Allow no airstrips or camps.
- Allow no fuel storage.
- Allow no refuse areas.
- Law enforcement authority needs to be stated explicitly and acknowledged in the Terms and Conditions, and enforced in the Annual Performance Plan.
- List required mitigation measures.
- As with most kinds of special parks uses (special use permits, Row permits, etc.), the ROW should require the Applicant to reimburse respective federal agencies on an annual basis for fair and reasonable costs to administer the ROW through agency-managed lands.
As described above, for a project of this magnitude in an environment so fragile the EEA and DEIS contain numerous deficiencies in the adequacy and quality of their information content and analysis. To a great extent, the agencies’ assessments of the impacts are fundamentally flawed due to the many uncertainties and information gaps in AIDEA’s proposal. Absent more thoughtful planning and analysis by the respective federal agencies, the pristine resources of Gates of the Arctic National Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, and the Noatak National Preserve are at grave risk of significant long-term adverse impacts if this project is implemented based primarily on the Applicant’s wishes. We ask that the responsible federal officials to carefully consider our concerns and take steps to more actively manage the project to an appropriate solution, in accordance with applicable laws and policies.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this important issue.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
201 I Street, NE #805, Washington, DC 20002
cc: Donald Striker, Acting Regional Director, Alaska Region, NPS
 More properly, mineral district. The term ‘mining district’ was used to promote the development of the Ambler village subsistence and caribou habitat without any serious, prudent and feasible, mining going on.
 Kobuk River Valley National Park, Noatak National Preserve, Gates of the Arctic National Preserve, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Wilderness. Some argue that the legislation for the Gates National Preserve and the National Park make one Unit, others argue two, administered the same for the same Congressional Purpose.
 The Kobuk River is a large, slow river are a large fish most prized of all fish even the salmon among the many Native villages located along the Kobuk. The sheefish are notably wilderness-dependent, inadequately assessed for vulnerability by this EEA or the DEIS for the Ambler Road by BLM.
 AIDEA’s scheme is to build the road and charge mining companies a toll for the use of the public’s right-of-way. The mining company, the current one, would be a contractor of AIDEA, not a partner. If the mining company defaults before complete reimbursement of the immense (but apparently low-balled) cost of development and maintenance and policing, AIDEA has not plausibly shown the capacity to absorb the debt, but claims it can sell investors in bonds to build the road while holding AIDEA harmless for the debt. AIDEA’s plan is to build first a “Pioneer Road,” the most minimal one-lane of three tiers until build-out is complete, clearly demonstrating it has no capacity to build tier 2 or 3 from the bonds, but betting on unrealized revenue streams from truckers.