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.

Native Impact

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.

Business Impact

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.

Environmental Impact

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.

Financial Impact

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.

 

A LOOK INTO THE PAST

Advice to my 19-year-old self

A decade ago I entered college determined, like many, to find life’s meaning. Predictably, my freshman year was filled with mistakes and misadventures that eventually bounced me in the right direction. The rest of my college experience was similar, with slightly less beer and more attention paid to my professors. I marched into my mid-twenties crusading against norms and chasing the people that inspired me to think differently. This often ended with dead ends creating more questions than answers. This is how I learned to grow up: fuck up, learn, and do better.

Today I’m sitting near a Wi-Fi hotspot in Cuba, about to make yet another bad decision – attempt to paddle across the Straits of Florida. That’s a story for another time. Havana is full of color and life, and people who show love and kindness to complete strangers. This has made a mark on me already, reminding me to reflect on how I got here. Looking back, I could have found my way with more grace and saved my mother a few headaches. If given the chance, these are the pieces of advice I would give my younger self.

  1. You already know that all great adventures start with bad decisions. That does not mean that all bad decisions lead to great adventures. Very few actually do. Most lead to mundane adventures like annoyed housemates and credit card bills. Please learn to pick the right ones.

  2. You’ll meet a lot of people in the next 10 years. You’ll make stories with many of them. You’ll dislike some. But only a handful will change your course in life. Search these people out. When you find them, never let them go.

  3. Most people are acting. They are trying to be the person they think they should be, instead of being weird. Embrace the weird. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Unfilter. Run around like crazy. Talk to strangers. Howl at the moon. Encourage others to do so, too. Trust me, no one is watching, and if they are, they need you as inspiration.

  4. Most questions don’t have empirical answers. Hell, most questions don’t have answers at all. Instead of playing out dozens of scenarios in your head, learn to simplify. Whether it’s a big or small decision, define yourself by actions you’re proud of. That’s the best heuristic method you’ll find.

  5. There’s no path to success, and you certainly don’t need to buy a house or build a career to get there. Success is using your time wisely. Respect is never wasting others’ time. Find what makes you most excited and invest your time in it--and never be late.

  6. If you’re going to judge someone, pick good criteria. For instance, the “Say/Do Ratio.” People talk a lot, and so do you. This isn’t bad in and of itself, but try to not get to caught up in big ideas or charming people. Wait and watch for follow through and then surround yourself with people that Do more than they Say.

  7. Life is messy – that’s the most beautiful part. Embrace the grey and fluid areas because these are what make us human and ultimately become the most rewarding. We all make mistakes. These mistakes help all of us grow. The world would be a better place if we allowed for a bit more confusion and messiness.

  8. Team, families, companies, and communities are built on trust. Trust your friends and trust your colleagues. Trust strangers. Trust moonshot ideas and handshake agreements. Trust new foods, half-baked plans, and eye twinkles. Trust best intentions, even if they have failed in the past. Trust the process, and most importantly, trust yourself.

  9. Passion and work should be combined whenever possible. Folks that tell you otherwise are, quite frankly, crazy. Either find a way to make your hobby your job, turn your job into a hobby, or find a new job. I call this Work-Life Integration.

  10. You’ll never regret a swim. Ever.