Ambler Road Project
Ambler Road Project

A Brooks Range hunter packing out a nice bull caribou. Photo by Aaron Hitchins

I was on my hands and knees on a mountainside in the Brooks Range searching for the last of the season’s shriveled, half-frozen blueberries. It was early September. Winter was not far away. I was seven weeks into a two-part traverse of the mountain range, and I’d timed my food supply to last to a rendezvous point where two friends were supposed to fly in with food and inflatable boats. Then, we’d float out the 400 miles to the Chukchi Sea. They failed to show on our agreed-upon date. I knew it was probably a weather hold but, with no food, I was growing rapidly weaker each passing day. A rushing sound startled me and I rolled over, yanking my pistol out. I figured it was a grizzly.

Instead, six bull caribou charged past just yards away. Something had been chasing them. I cocked my pistol, aimed at the smallest one and thought about ending my hunger. As I watched the caribou disappear into the tundra, I wondered if I made the wrong decision not to pull the trigger. I didn’t want to waste the meat or attract bears, but maybe something had happened, and my friends weren’t coming. Suddenly, a howl rose up from the valley below. Other wolves joined in. I spent the next few hours limping through the willows, hoping to find a fresh cariboukill, until I gave up and sat on a tussock with my head in my hands. A nearby howl roused me. A white wolf appeared on a knoll, a sentinel, eying me suspiciously as the rest of its pack feasted on a caribou somewhere in the willows.

The Brooks Range

A Brooks Range hunter packing out a nice bull caribou. Photo by Aaron Hitchins

The Brooks Range is Alaska’s Arctic-most mountain range. It stretches roughly 700 miles across the top of the state. It is many things to different people, but outdoorsmen and women know it as America’s most wild and remote hunting and fishing grounds. I’m a lifelong Alaskan hunter, who, even before my parents set me free in the woods with a .22 rifle, lived vicariously through my dad’s annual hunts. I’ve hunted caribou in the Arctic numerous times. It was the same year, 2009, when I made the two-part 9-week traverse of the Brooks Range, that the Ambler Road project became public knowledge.

Ambler Road Project

Not long after that trek, I sat in on a legislative listening session in Juneau to learn more. Being surrounded by politicians was a bizarre juxtaposition to the thousands of caribou, dozens of grizzlies, Dall sheep, wolves, and wolverines I’d recently experienced in the field. I learned the Ambler Road project would be a 211-mile-long, 420-feet-wide industrial road across the Brooks Range to help foreign-owned companies develop at least four, probably more, open-pit copper, lead, zinc, and gold mines.

The road would act as a gateway for more industrial development to sprawl through the Brooks Range. It would also cost approximately $2 billion, financed by the publicly-funded Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), a state-owned corporation. In theory, the cost would be paid back through tolls paid by mining companies. In reality, the state getting paid back is a big and questionable act of faith. The road would cross 11 rivers and around 2,900 streams, degrading fish and wildlife habitat, and would be closed to the public.

The memory that stands out about that legislative listening session was a state representative berating a woman after she raised concerns that the megaproject would negatively affect the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.

“All I ever hear is about caribou! People need jobs! They need something to wake up in the morning for!” he yelled.

What’s at Stake

I’ve followed the Ambler Road project ever since that. Altogether, I’ve probably spent six months hunting and wandering the Brooks Range. It’s offered me perspective on what’s at stake. I’ve had conversations with people in the mining industry who have called the megaproject a good economic opportunity for the region’s population. A lot of the minerals could be used for green energy. One geologist confided that he hoped the project would never be built because he had experienced the Brooks Range and he thought it was more valuable to leave the place as it was.

I’ve chatted with people who live in the Brooks Range who’ve said if the Ambler Road project were to happen it’d be the “death of deep wilderness and the end of a lifestyle.” I’ve talked with hunters who are fully aware that a trip to Alaska’s Brooks Range is the trip of a lifetime. With no public access and the road’s devastating impacts to fish and game, the megaproject is a lose-lose situation for all of us who live by the rifle and rod. That’s a large reason why opposition against the proposal is rapidly growing among hunters and anglers.

Ambler Road Project

A wolf in the Brooks Range. © Bjorn Dihle.

Defending Alaska’s Brooks Range

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) mission is pretty simple: “To guarantee all Americans have quality places to hunt and fish.” The Ambler Road project endangers one of the nation’s greatest places to do that. That’s why TRCP has helped organize Hunters & Anglers for the Brooks Range, which “is a collective of seasoned hunters, anglers, conservationists, and leading outdoor brands.” All “are committed to defending the wild and remote character of the Alaska’s Brooks Range—a world-class hunting and fishing destination—from the proposed Ambler Industrial Road.”

Jen Leahy, the Alaska program manager for TRCP, is clear why the Ambler Road is a bad idea.

“The risks of this proposal far outweigh the benefits. Hunters and anglers understand the Brooks Range is most valuable exactly how it is: vast, wild, and remote. This is the kind of place you take your dad for his last big hunt. It’s where you bring your kids for a wilderness float trip they’ll always remember. Even in Alaska, this degree of solitude is rare. We’re not willing to trade the enduring legacy of the Brooks Range for wildly optimistic promises by foreign-owned mining companies.”

Alaska Native Tribes Oppose Ambler Road Project

Dihle trekking through the Brooks Range. Photo courtesy of Bjorn Dihle.

It’s not just people looking to experience a trip of a lifetime to the wildest country left in North America that are opposing the megaproject. Dozens of Alaska Native Tribes are collectively represented by multiple standing resolutions opposing the Ambler Road. Their main reason is that the road, if built, would negatively impact traditional ways of life, to which hunting and fishing is essential. The Native corporation Doyon, the largest private land holder in Alaska, recently canceled a land access agreement with AIDEA, citing “poor treatment.” They have no plan to enter a new land access agreement with AIDEA for the 10- to 12 miles of Doyon’s land the road would cross. This announcement creates a serious hitch in turning the Ambler Road into a reality.

Nonetheless, AIDEA announced it intends to spend $7 million in 2024 on the Ambler Road project. That will mean AIDEA has spent $54 million on their efforts on the megaproject so far. Where and how that money has and will be used is unclear. An independent audit in 2022 exposed AIDEA as a “floundering entity” that’s lost Alaska $10 billion since its formation 41 years ago. AIDEA board member Albert Fogle was quoted in  the Anchorage Daily News saying the Ambler Road project is “near and dear to my heart” and that the corporation should “really push the envelope on getting those developments. If that means going above and beyond, we need to do it. I mean, take some dozers and drills and make it happen.”

Industrial Development of Brooks Range

There is a good reason why AIDEA clings to the dream of making the proposed Ambler Road a reality. If built, it would very likely lead to an industrial sprawl of roads, and multitudes of mine and oil development from the Dalton Highway to the Chukchi Sea. It would result in significant adverse impacts to wildlife, wild lands and the people who care about those things. To some people, that cost pales in comparison to the money that might be made.

While attending the University of Alaska in the early 2000s, I’d drive once or twice a year up the Dalton Highway into the Brooks Range to hunt caribou. Back then the Western Arctic Caribou Herd population was estimated at 490,000. Today, it’s down to 152,000. Some locals have difficulty getting the meat they need. Under very controversial orders, significant portions of federal lands in Unit 23 and Unit 26a have been closed to non-local caribou and moose hunters for the 2022 and 2023 seasons. It is unclear what will happen for the 2024 season, but it is clear that the Ambler Road would likely disrupt caribou migrations, which could ultimately result in fewer hunting opportunities for all user groups.

Bull caribou in the Brooks Range in August. © Bjorn Dihle.

Wild That’s Worth Saving

My hunts and wanders up in the Brooks Range have been some of my favorites. The second part of my nine-week traverse was three weeks alone, paralleling the route the Ambler Road would take. I lost track of how many thousands of caribou I walked with—at least 20,000. I saw somewhere between 50 and 60 grizzlies. One night I awoke, gun in hand, ripping open the vestibule as a bear trampled the lower part of my tent. I came upon wolves at a den. I got stalked for hours by a sick, injured wolf. During those 60 or so days in the field, I encountered only three other people.

I’ve hunted and wandered much of Alaska, and the Brooks Range is the wildest, most epic country I’ve experienced. For me, and other hunters and anglers, that is definitely something worth waking up in the morning for.

The Bureau of Land Management recently released a draft supplemental environmental impact statement for the proposed Ambler Road project. The statement makes it clear that if built, the megaproject would negatively affect local and visiting hunters and anglers. The public has until December 22, 2023 to comment on the Ambler Road project’s EIS and take a stand safeguarding the future of America’s hunting and angling opportunities.

Bjorn Dihle is a lifelong Alaskan and hunter. This article was sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, who’s mission is to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.

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