Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council1The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council is a treaty organization comprised of 74 tribes and First Nations extending from one end of the Yukon River to the other. ● Alaska Community Action on Toxics ● Alaskans for Wildlife ● Alaska Soles, Great Old Broads for Wilderness ● Alaska Wilderness League ● Alaska Wildlife Alliance ● All About Adventure ● Audubon Alaska ● Brooks Range Council ● Center for Biological Diversity ● Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks ● Earthworks ● National Parks Conservation Association ● Northern Alaska Environmental Center ● Patagonia ● Sierra Club ● The Wilderness Society ● Trustees for Alaska ● Wilderness Watch ● Wildlife Conservation Society ● Winter Wildlands Alliance
Sent via E-Planning
December 22, 2023
Bureau of Land Management
222 W. 7th Ave., Stop #13
Anchorage, AK 99513
Re: Comments for the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Road
Dear Ms. McIntosh:
On behalf of the above-listed organizations and our members, we provide the attached comments on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Proposed Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Road (Ambler Road). As detailed in the attached comments, countless aspects of this project and permitting process — from the lack of key project and baseline information, to the cascading range of serious impacts likely to occur from the project, to the legal problems with the authorizations and reviews to date — point to the need for the agencies to rescind the prior authorizations and adopt the no action alternative.
This complex and far-reaching infrastructure proposal will have significant impacts across a broad region and is contrary to the public interest. The proposed Road would cross a vast roadless area in the southern Brooks Range, cut across the country’s second largest national park, and disrupt an area relied upon by many rural communities to sustain their way of life. Each year, 152,000 Western Arctic caribou migrate across the wild landscape, covering 2,700 miles a year on one of the Earth’s longest land migrations — the distance from Seattle to New York. Here, the land stretches for hundreds of miles uncrossed by roads, railways, or any sign of the industrial world. People have lived in the Brooks Range for thousands of years, and still depend upon hunting for caribou and moose, fishing for salmon and sheefish, and carefully balance human need with healthy sustainable wildlife populations.
Many of the impacts of this project, as well as appropriate mitigation measures, were not adequately considered as part of the previous authorizations for this project. As a result, there are two pending lawsuits challenging those authorizations.2N. Alaska Envtl. Ctr. v. Haaland, Case No. 3:20-cv-00187-SLG (Alaska D. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022); Alatna Vill. Council v. Heinlein, Case No. 3:20-cv-00253-SLG (Alaska D. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022). Those lawsuits underscore the wide range of legal violations that occurred in the federal permitting process for the Ambler Road, including violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The Department of the Interior previously acknowledged some of the legal errors with the process to date with respect to the NHPA analysis and the ANILCA Section 810 subsistence analysis.3Defs.’ Mot. for Voluntary Remand, N. Alaska Envtl. Ctr. v. Haaland, Case No. 3:20-cv- 00187-SLG (Alaska D. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022) (ECF No. 113) [hereinafter NAEC Remand Mot.]; Defs.’ Mot. for Voluntary Remand, Alatna Vill. Council v. Heinlein Case No. 3:20-cv-00253- SLG (Alaska D. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022) (ECF No. 111) [hereinafter AVC Remand Mot.]. However, there are still far broader, fundamental problems with the authorizations for this project.
The continuing lack of key information about the Ambler Road’s design and baseline information about the resources in the region alone are fatal flaws. AIDEA is still incapable of providing sufficient information about this project and resources in the project area to inform a meaningful analysis of both the impacts and necessary mitigation measures. This does not allow the agencies to engage in the robust analysis required by NEPA and other statutes, and is particularly concerning for a project of this magnitude. The scale of this project is not an excuse for allowing AIDEA to provide inadequate project designs and information or for moving forward with project authorizations without complete information. The agencies’ analyses to date have been hamstrung by AIDEA’s failure to provide sufficient site-specific information about the project proposal and project area. The last administration approved this project without that key information, instead allowing AIDEA to submit that information at some unspecified point in the future. But it is contrary to NEPA for the agencies to consider information after-the-fact; the purpose of NEPA is to ensure the agencies consider relevant information prior to making a decision. That lack of key information necessitates rescission of the prior authorizations and adoption of the no action alternative.
Our organizations are also deeply concerned about the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of the proposed road, development of the Ambler mining district, and the lack of analysis done to date of the full range of likely impacts. Building this road will create heavy truck traffic though a large, wild area that will result in noise pollution and dust, impair wilderness recreation, disturb wildlife, destroy wetlands, permanently alter rural lifestyles dependent on traditional food resources like fish and caribou, and potentially cause population-level impacts to caribou and fish, as acknowledged in the SEIS. The Western Arctic Caribou Herd, a vital subsistence resource for numerous communities, has already experienced significant declines in its population in recent years. Those impacts will be severely exacerbated if this project moves forward. BLM, NPS, and the Corps previously failed to consider widespread public opposition to this project and the full range of negative environmental impacts. In addition, the previous authorizations did not include a sufficient range of mitigation measures to avoid and minimize impacts to important historical and ecological resources, particularly wetlands. While the SEIS takes steps in the right direction for acknowledging the serious impacts to subsistence likely to occur from this project, there are still numerous relevant resource issues that have either not been addressed or have been inadequately addressed.
As the lead agency, BLM must ensure this process complies with NEPA, FLPMA, and other legal and permitting requirements. BLM should proceed cautiously, ensuring that the agency takes sufficient time to engage the public, the scientific community, and communities who will be most impacted by this decision. The federal agencies must ensure there is ample outreach occurring to local communities so the individuals who will be most impacted by this process have meaningful opportunities to understand and weigh in on this highly damaging project. A core purpose of NEPA is to ensure public participation and involvement in agency decisions.44 40 C.F.R. §§ 1500.2(d), 1506.6. The timeline for this process should be driven by the goal of ensuring robust public input, allowing time for meaningful government‐to‐government consultation, and recognition of the need to use the best scientific information — not by politically driven, rushed timelines that could lead to the agencies repeating the mistakes of the past.
It is also important for the Corps and NPS to revisit their decisions as part of this process. The Corps has yet to engage in any obvious way in this remand process. It is also unclear how NPS plans to address the legal issues with the separate Environmental and Economic Analysis, despite acknowledging there were legal flaws with the subsistence analysis. Given the seriousness of the legal problems with this project, all of the agencies should rescind their prior authorizations, including the BLM and NPS rights-of-way and the CWA 404 permit. As a threshold issue, the agencies previously authorized two very different versions of the project, due to AIDEA submitting a substantially modified permit application to the Corps part way through the process. The agencies should not authorize this project when the project applicant has failed to comply with even the basic legal requirements under ANILCA and other statutes.
Finally, although road proponents tout the project as necessary to access extensive critical minerals, the mineral resource reports and economic feasibility studies associated with the major mineral deposits in the Ambler Mining District dispel those claims. As explained in this letter, there is still significant uncertainty about the mineral deposits in the region and there is no indication they will ensure U.S. mineral independence or resolve domestic supply chain issues with regard to critical minerals.
In sum, this project is likely to have far-reaching, negative impacts to subsistence, wildlife, vegetation, permafrost conditions, and water resources across a vast region. Despite this, AIDEA has still not provided sufficient information for BLM and other agencies, as well as the public, to fully assess and understand the proposed project. As a result, the analyses done to date and the prior authorizations lacked information critical to fully analyze this project and comply with numerous statutory requirements. Because of the broad range of issues with this project, BLM should adopt the no action alternative and the agencies should rescind the prior authorizations.
If you have any questions or wish to clarify anything in our comments, please do not hesitate to contact Suzanne Bostrom at (907) 433-2015 or by e-mail at sb******@tr******.org. Thank you for your prompt attention to our comments.
Theresa Clark, Executive Director
Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council
Pamela Miller, Executive Director
Alaska Community Action on Toxics
Frank Maxwell, President
Alaskans for Wildlife
Kathleen O’Reilly-Doyle and Loren J. Karro, Co-Leaders
Alaska Soles, Great Old Broads for Wilderness
Maddie Halloran, Alaska State Director
Alaska Wilderness League
Nicole Schmitt, Executive Director
Alaska Wildlife Alliance
All About Adventure
David Krause, Interim Executive Director
John Gaedeke, Chairman
Brooks Range Council
Cooper Freeman, Alaska Representative / Senior Advocate
Center for Biological Diversity
Michael B. Murray, Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program Director
Alex Johnson, Arctic and Interior Alaska Campaign Director
National Parks Conservation Association
Katie McClellan, Mining Impacts and Energy Program Manager
Northern Alaska Environmental Center
Meghan Wolf, Senior Manager, Environmental Campaigns
Dan Ritzman, Director, Conservation Campaigns
Karlin Nageak Itchoak, Senior Regional Director (Alaska Region)
The Wilderness Society
Victoria Clark, Executive Director
Trustees for Alaska
Kevin Proescholdt, Conservation Director
Dr. Martin Robards, Regional Director, Beringia Program
Wildlife Conservation Society
Hilary Eisen, Policy Director
Winter Wildlands Alliance
ENCLOSURES5Two expert reports are included as attachments to these comments. Groups are also concurrently mailing a thumb drive with additional references cited in these comments to the BLM Fairbanks Field Office and Stacie McIntosh for inclusion in the administrative record.
Tracy Stone-Manning, Director, Bureau of Land Management
Steve Cohn, Alaska State Director, Bureau of Land Management
Laura Daniel-Davis, Acting Deputy Secretary, Department of the Interior
Chuck Sams, Director, National Park Service
Sarah Creachbaum, Alaska Regional Director, National Park Service
Mark Dowdle, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve Superintendent, National Park Service
Colonel Jeffrey Palazzini, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Sarah Longan, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Clinton Scott, U.S. Coast Guard
- 1The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council is a treaty organization comprised of 74 tribes and First Nations extending from one end of the Yukon River to the other.
- 2N. Alaska Envtl. Ctr. v. Haaland, Case No. 3:20-cv-00187-SLG (Alaska D. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022); Alatna Vill. Council v. Heinlein, Case No. 3:20-cv-00253-SLG (Alaska D. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022).
- 3Defs.’ Mot. for Voluntary Remand, N. Alaska Envtl. Ctr. v. Haaland, Case No. 3:20-cv- 00187-SLG (Alaska D. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022) (ECF No. 113) [hereinafter NAEC Remand Mot.]; Defs.’ Mot. for Voluntary Remand, Alatna Vill. Council v. Heinlein Case No. 3:20-cv-00253- SLG (Alaska D. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022) (ECF No. 111) [hereinafter AVC Remand Mot.].
- 44 40 C.F.R. §§ 1500.2(d), 1506.6.
- 5Two expert reports are included as attachments to these comments. Groups are also concurrently mailing a thumb drive with additional references cited in these comments to the BLM Fairbanks Field Office and Stacie McIntosh for inclusion in the administrative record.