Road to Resources Fallacy
Permanent Change to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Deep in the heart of Alaska, the proposed 220-mile Ambler Road threatens to permanently change the Brooks Range and the subsistence communities that span across it. The Ambler Road is one of many megaprojects that the state unleashed with the Road to Resources Initiative, best known for hidden agendas and high costs. Known by many as the Road to Ruin, the program is championed by mining companies who are pushing the State of Alaska to pay for a road that would give them access to copper, gold, and other mineral deposits in the area.
The Ambler Road would cut across more than twenty miles of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, located in the Brooks Range of Alaska. The nearest major airport is an 8-hour drive on a gravel highway, the Dalton. The area just south of the Brooks is a crucial migration path for three large caribou herds–the Teshekpuk, Central Arctic, and Western Arctic–and is home to healthy populations of bears, muskox, foxes, sheep, wolves and moose.
This August I spent a couple weeks in Gates with a biologist, conservationist, and a dirtbag who’s previously done restoration work with the Park Service, to better understand the issue. We traversed the Arrigetch Peaks and paddled the Alatna River, allowing us a first-hand view of the land that would be impacted. We wandered the tundra, scrambled up slippery granite peaks, and paddled one of the four federally designated Wild & Scenic rivers that is threatened.
Decisions made today will change this place forever. Politicians, thousands of miles away from the Brooks, are placating lobbyists, instead of listening to those who would be affected most.
Almost every community along the proposed corridor has expressed opposition to the road–some have gone so far as to pass resolutions against the project. These Inupiaq and Athabaskan villages see the road as a threat to their subsistence way of life, which primarily consists of caribou, moose, fish, and berries. These foods make up more than half of the diet for many communities, and the road would dramatically change this.
In conversations with Dirk Nickisch, who owns an air logistics and flying service, and John Gaedeke, a second-generation lodge owner in the Brooks, one thing became clear to me: many small businesses in the area would be replaced with one bang-and-bust industry. Almost all of these small businesses rely on the pristine wilderness to draw new business. John, a developer and conservationist, said “there is no moratorium to guiding or showing someone the wilderness. I can sell someone seeing a mountain a thousand times, but you can only sell a mountain itself once. This road would kill tourism.” The Ambler Road would likely open up expansion projects to Umiat, Nome, and other remote communities, making it easier for large mining corporations to extract Alaska’s natural resources in the future.
Ben Sullender, the resident biologist on the trip who works for Audubon Alaska, fed us information as we passed through different ecosystems. Of the many implications of the mega project, one of the most consequential is the effect on Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which has already seen its population decline from 500,000 to 201,000 in the last 13 years. The proposed road runs perpendicular to the migration pattern of the herd, possibly blocking the herd from its historical calving ground. Tim Fullman, a Phd. and Wildlife Ecologist at The Wilderness Society, is concerned about access to key resources like nutritious food, noise impacts on nearby species, the effects of dust on surrounding vegetation, and an increase in hunting could all affect the caribou populations.
Project supporters estimate the cost of the Ambler Road to be nearly $500 million. Third party researchers say that the Ambler Road would be much more, somewhere between $1.7 and $2.4 billion. Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic Program Director at The Wilderness Society, is highly concerned with a lack of funding, especially in a state with a small tax base like Alaska. She pointed out that the reason most Alaskan mega-projects have failed in the recent past is funding, leaving half-finished roads as permanent scars on the land.
The takeaway–we have the chance to safeguard an area that has never been changed. We have an opportunity to stand up against potentially permanent change. All we have to do is not touch this. The Arctic functions just fine without us.
Read more about the Brooks Range Council.
A National Treasure At Risk
The Threat of Sulfide Mining Adjacent to the Boundary Waters
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in Northern Minnesota, protects critical habitat for hundreds of species, feeds a thriving economy, and offers wilderness experiences for millions of visitors. The B-dub, as it’s called by locals, has been the most visited wilderness in the country every year since the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed. Its collection of lakes, rivers, and wetlands provides an identity to the entire state of Minnesota.
And like many public lands across the country, it’s under serious and imminent threat.
Four sulfide-ore copper mines have been proposed on the edge of the protected water network, a toxic practice that would leach into the entire system–1.1 million acres of federal land. Mining companies are demanding mineral leases on the edge of the wilderness that would open up a corridor for mines, road networks, and tailing piles. These mines would leach toxins into the Boundary Waters for hundreds of years by the conservative estimates.
This isn’t the well-trod story of environmentalists against resource extractive industries. Known colloquially as the Iron Range, the collection of small communities in the northeast corner of Minnesota once produced more iron-ore than anywhere else in the world. It was the engine that fueled the steel revolution and built countless cars, buildings, and battleships. Iron-ore still employs thousands and is an integral part of the fabric of Minnesota.
But there are crucial differences between the taconite of the past and the proposed sulfide-ore copper mining. Sulfide-ore produce tailing piles that leach sulfuric acid, heavy metals, and sulfates, polluting groundwater, unlike taconite mining which utilizes open pit mines. To date every sulfide-copper mine in the country has leaked toxins. “It’s a foregone conclusion that these mines will pollute,” said Rob Coughlin, an executive at a local manufacturer that relies on the Boundary Waters heavily.
Tom Myers is a hydrologist and leading expert on the issue. His biggest concern is that the area has few base compounds, meaning there is no natural buffer to acidic drainage. The Boundary Waters is also one of the most interconnected water systems in the world, meaning damage would likely be expansive and hard to control.
Outdoor recreation is a large driver of the Northern Minnesota economy–the Boundary Waters produces $1.4 billion annually, with over 70 percent of the residents in this area–Cook, Lake, and northern St. Louis Counties–working in the tourism industry. While sulfide-copper mines would provide a temporary economic boost, even the most aggressive estimates show them creating just 650 new jobs over the course of 40 years—a fraction of what outdoor recreation already supports. Steve Piragis runs one of the largest outfitters in Ely, employing 20 people. “Long term we’d likely have to move or sell,”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there is enough accessible copper in the ground worldwide to meet global needs for hundreds of years, almost all in places that can be mined with much less risk. The Boundary Waters is not the place sulfide-ore mining.
The Public Trust Issue Of The Century
An Aging Oil Pipeline That Runs Under the Great Lake, Unbenounced To Many
The Great Lakes supply drinking water to forty million people, provide crucial habitat for a dozen endangered species, and support a handful of multi-billion dollar industries including outdoor recreation, agriculture, mining, shipping, and tourism. Yet, the State of Michigan has turned a blind eye toward an aging 64-year-old pipeline under the Great Lakes. It’s the disaster of a century waiting to happen.
The Straits of Mackinac connect Lake Huron to Lake Michigan, at the center of the Great Lakes. Five miles wide with currents ten times stronger than the Niagara Falls, oil leaked in the Straits could cover hundreds of miles of shoreline, halt shipping lanes, saturate wetlands, fill marinas, and ruin the water that millions of people drink daily.
Line 5 was built in 1953 and engineered to be safe for 50 years–it’s now 64 years old. Every day 23 million gallons of oil flow through it. Enbridge, the Canadian company that owns the aging pipe, has confirmed numerous places have protective coating missing yet has no plans to replace them. Enbridge is already responsible for the largest land-based oil spill in US history and had over 1,000 spills from 1999 to 2013, leaking 7.4 million gallons in total.
The land that Line 5 runs along in the Straits is held in public trust. Legally, if private interest is threatening public interest, the State has a duty to mitigate it. Citizens are entitled to protected beaches, navigable waterways and harbors, drinkable water, wetlands, rivers, fisheries and wildlife habitat. The State of Michigan, as the trustee, is accountable for managing public trust properties like the Straits of Mackinac.
Over two thirds of Michigan residents polled support shutting it down Line 5, yet the state government hasn’t made many changes. Liz Kirkwood, environmental lawyer and Executive Director of FLOW, explained “Enbridge is an oil transportation company that uses Michigan as a shortcut. Michigan doesn’t get much out of it. While Michigan assumes all the risk of a spill, residents receive about 5% of the crude oil transported in Line 5. That’s it.“
Dave Schwab is a hydrodynamics expert who has spent his career at the NOAA Great Lakes Research Laboratory and the University of Michigan Water Center. He invented the Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System, the tool that sailors, weather analysts, and the US Coast Guard all rely on for wave, current, and water level information. Dave simulated over 800 spills that up to 150 miles of shoreline and hundreds of square miles of water covered in oil.
Desmond Berry, the Natural Resources Manager of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, is worried about the local and statewide impact. “Nearly half the tribe’s commercially harvested fish come from the Straits area–a Line 5 leak would devastate the Tribal way of life for years to come. The State’s $38 billion tourism industry would be impacted and the State’s $7 billion commercial fishing industry would be devastated too.”
Larry Bell is the owner of Bell’s Brewery based in Kalamazoo that employs 520 people and sells almost a half million barrels of beer every year. It’s the 14th largest brewery in the country. Bell’s has a subsidiary brewery in the Upper Peninsula that would be affected directly. “There are hundreds of local municipalities that draw their water from the area. These communities would struggle to find other water sources. Property values would plummet. Tourism would decline quickly. These communities rely on those dollars. It wouldn’t take long for the tax base to erode.”
Lisa Wozniak is the Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and is delightfully blunt “clean, safe drinking water is not a partisan issue. It's a basic human right. Everyday citizens want clean water and air. They want to trust the water that comes out of their taps. They want their children to be healthy. Enbridge has asserted that, if properly maintained, Line 5 could safely operate in perpetuity. It is objectively absurd to suggest that a metal pipe–subject to the laws of the universe–will never rust or otherwise breakdown.”