Blog Post Alex Johnson May 1, 2020

Alaska Officials Use Pandemic to Transfer Funds for Mining Road

The misappropriation of $35 million in state funding to help small and medium-sized businesses could instead support construction of a 211-mile road through the wildest national park landscape in America.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and related financial crisis, an Alaska state agency recently approved the transfer of $35 million in state funds during an emergency meeting meant to aid businesses affected by the crisis. But instead of providing economic relief, this money is being set aside to fund a private mining road, dubbed a “billion-dollar driveway,” that would cut through wild lands where Alaska Native communities depend on clean water and abundant wildlife and where Arctic caribou have migrated for millennia across the open tundra.

NPCA and its supporters have long opposed the Ambler mining road, a destructive and unnecessary industrial transportation corridor to an as-yet-undeveloped mining district, which developers have proposed building in one of the wildest landscapes in America. The road would cut through 20 miles of Gates of the Arctic National Preserve and threaten critical food sources people depend on for subsistence. The road would provide corporate access to the area, where developers intend to operate as many as a dozen open-pit mines for more than 100 years, but it wouldn’t provide meaningful benefit or access for local communities or park visitors.

Yet in late March, the board of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) unanimously voted in favor of the resolution to reallocate the funds. Normally, new allocations of funds require a vote by the state legislature, but AIDEA used the pretense of the state economic crisis to transfer funding out of an account that could have provided economic relief to small and medium-sized businesses affected by the pandemic. Simply stated, this transfer takes state funding away from businesses that are suffering and directs it to multinational mining companies who intend to profit from state resources.

More than 100 Alaska residents, including elected officials, called in during two public meetings, and all but one person out of the dozens who commented opposed the transfer of funds for the mining road. I was among the many Alaskans speaking out against this “pandemic profiteering,” which misappropriates taxpayer money under the false pretense of responding to a public health emergency.

Map of the proposed Ambler Mining Road. (Click to enlarge.)

Alaska Rep. Andy Josephson was one of the people who spoke out against the funding transfer. In a recent op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News, he called the move “opportunist,” stating that, “the project will not significantly help Alaskans during the current economic emergency.” He added, “The issue should be postponed until after the COVID-19 emergency subsides to allow time for thoughtful consideration of the public’s oral and written input.” He also questioned whether the transfer was legal.

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AIDEA’s emergency vote took place on the same day that the Bureau of Land Management released a flawed and rushed environmental review of the Ambler mining road. As soon as mid-May, the National Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard could release additional permits and approvals necessary for the project to move forward — despite the clear environmental damage the road would cause in this remarkable in-tact landscape that includes 16 million acres of contiguous parklands, the largest expanse of protected lands in the country.

To date, AIDEA has already invested more than $26 million in pre-construction costs for the Ambler mining road, including nearly $5 million paid to the federal government for its recently issued environmental impact statement. Combined with this new transfer of funds intended for COVID relief, the agency will have spent more than $61 million in state taxpayer dollars. The road, which could cost anywhere from $580 million to more than $1 billion to construct, does not have a viable plan to return revenue to the state.

The project itself is a terrible idea for so many reasons, but this latest move to redirect funds to help pay for it, when Alaskan businesses need it most, takes the shameful actions of the state to a whole new level.

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NPCA will continue working with advocates in the region to fight the mining road, including people in the Alaska Native villages, wilderness lodge owners, guides, bush pilots and other small business owners who would be negatively affected by the development — and who are being willfully ignored by the state of Alaska amid the COVID crisis. We will keep lobbying with these advocates in Juneau and Washington, D.C., (virtually, for the moment) to fight this destructive project at the state and federal levels for the health of Alaska Native communities, our remarkable Arctic wildlife, and our national parks and preserves.

About the author

  • Alex Johnson Campaign Director, Arctic and Interior Alaska, Alaska

    Alex directs NPCA’s programs to protect and enhance the national parks and preserves in Alaska.