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Into the West
The promise and process of the Ambler Access Project and West Susitna Access Road
By Tracy Barbour

nchanged for almost thirty years, Alaska’s highway system has seen no new long-distance roads added to the network since the Dalton Highway was opened to the public in 1994. Even then, the haul road had been completed for more than sixteen years, with no new major highways added to the roster. The westernmost extent on Alaska’s (and North America’s) connected road system remains the bend in the Sterling Highway at Anchor Point. However, two ambitious road projects would claim the title if either of them succeeds in pushing farther west.

The proposed Ambler Access Road and West Susitna Access Road would make their areas more easily accessible for resource development, outdoor recreation, and other purposes. If constructed, the roads would generate well-paying jobs, economic growth for the state, and other opportunities for Alaskans—but they face some challenges and opposition.

The state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) is leading efforts to develop the Ambler Access Project (AAP) and West Susitna Access Road (WSAR). The AAP is a proposed 211-mile industrial access road from Milepost 161 on the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District in the southern Brooks Range foothills east of Kotzebue, an area rich with zinc, copper, and other elements.

The Ambler Road also would allow controlled access for approved commercial uses, but public access would not be permitted. As AIDEA’s website puts it, “While commercial transport of goods and services is not a primary purpose, it may be possible under the same rules of the road as mine users. Personal use such as hunting, fishing, and small-scale mining is prohibited. If it is built, this will not be a state road and will not be open to the general public.”

With the WSAR project, AIDEA and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough would build an all-season road and bridge up to and over the Little Susitna River. The intended road would stretch about 100 miles from the west end of the Ayrshire Road snowmachine trailhead to the confluence of Portage Creek and the Skwentna River, tapping resources in the Fish Creek Natural Resource Management Unit. Currently, there is only limited winter access to the area.

Both road projects continue winding their way through the preliminary stages of development.

Ambling Toward Metals

AIDEA undertook AAP with the goal of forming a public/private partnership to finance, construct, operate, and maintain the road. Earlier this year, AIDEA’s board approved a $30 million field season, splitting the cost with private-sector developer Ambler Metals.

The AAP—expected to cost more than $500 million—would return more than $5 billion in wages paid during the lifetime of Ambler mining, according to the UAA Center for Economic Development. In addition, the project will result in an estimated $193 million in direct payments to local governments. Developing the mines within the Ambler Mining District has the potential to facilitate more than 8,700 direct, indirect, and induced construction and operation jobs as well as nearly $700 million in annual wages. Additionally, it would create 360 direct jobs over the road’s construction period and up to 81 direct annual jobs for road operations and maintenance over the life of the road.

While the AAP has the support of key stakeholders, including the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Native Village of Shungnak, and the Resource Development Council for Alaska, it has also drawn opposition. Various groups have raised concerns and legal challenges over the potential impact on Alaska Native tribes and subsistence. In February, the US Department of Interior filed a motion to remand the final environmental impact statement and suspend the Ambler Road right-of-way permits while the department addresses what it considers “deficiencies” with BLM’s historic preservation and subsistence analyses. This fall, BLM is seeking public input before preparing a supplemental environmental impact statement.

headshot of Ramzi Fawaz
Ramzi Fawaz
Ambler Metals
“Diverse, on-the-ground perspectives are vital in promoting co-stewardship and ensuring resilient landscapes,” says BLM Fairbanks District Manager Geoff Beyersdorf in a statement released on September 16. “We are eager to hear from the public, tribes, and corporations to aid in helping us make an informed, durable decision.”

Despite the federal runaround, AIDEA has begun feasibility field work on the AAP. “It’s all pre-construction activities: normal procedures that parties undertake to understand design elements for a later decision of construction,” says AIDEA CEO and Executive Director Alan Weitzner. “We submitted the plan back in January, and we received approval from the BLM in the middle of August.”

headshot of Rod Arno
Rod Arno
Alaska Outdoor Council

In addition to having a delayed start in September, the AAP field work is limited to cultural survey activities only, according to Ambler Metals president and CEO Ramzi Fawaz. “In a letter sent to AIDEA in mid-August, BLM gave approval for the 2022 annual field work but made it conditional on numerous restrictions that effectively eliminated the planned engineering and environmental field survey activities this summer,” he says.

Onward to Skwentna

The West Susitna Access Project—deemed a priority in the State of Alaska’s 2014 Road to Resources report—continues to move through predevelopment. In 2019, AIDEA and the Mat-Su Borough agreed to provide a framework for a phased feasibility analysis of the project. Last year, the Alaska Legislature appropriated $8.5 million in capital funding for AIDEA to study the project, toward a final investment decision in 2024.

In April, the Mat-Su Borough completed a stakeholder engagement process after assembly members requested additional public outreach. In May, AIDEA filed a permit application to the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which initiated the environmental review. USACE asked AIDEA several follow-up questions, mainly related to clarifications on graphics, charts, and formatting of data.

“We have been engaging as frequently as we can with the public, with over five meetings with the Mat-Su Borough, over ten meetings with special entities, and ongoing public engagement within the borough itself,” Weitzner says.

The WSAR would support the extraction of minerals, such as gold, silver, copper, and strategic metals; oil and gas development; agricultural production (65,000 acres); and the harvest of timber (701,000 acres), according to AIDEA’s West Susitna Access website. In addition, the road would enable Alaskans—and visitors to the state—to gain easier access to 6 million acres for recreational activities.

Objections to WSAR center on potential damage to fishing streams, yet the Alaska Outdoor Council has endorsed the road. In June, the council’s board of directors unanimously voted to support the project thanks to the promise of greater public access. The multi-use aspect of the road fits well with the council’s mission, which, in part, is to ensure equality in access to the outdoors.

headshot of Alan Weltzner
Alan Weltzner

Surface transportation is the most affordable means of travel, according to Rod Arno, a former executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, now its policy director. “Currently, Alaska has 16,302 miles of state-maintained highways—which is far less than the third-smallest state in the union, Connecticut, with 21,020 miles of road,” says Arno, who works as a wilderness guide in Palmer. “Adding an additional 100 miles of highway in Alaska will not negatively impact the wilderness characteristics of the state.”

Positive People

The Alaska Outdoor Council intends to makes its voice heard. “By participating in the public process of permitting the West Susitna Access Road, [the council] will assure its place at the table with AIDEA, Department of Natural Resources, the Mat-Su Borough, and other non-governmental organizations during the planning or the roads route, building, maintenance, and funding,” Arno says.

The council’s endorsement of the WSAR was well-received by Friends of West Susitna, an independent grassroots organization whose mission is to advocate for year-round road access to lands and resources west of the Susitna River. “I think that’s phenomenal,” says Friends of West Susitna President Cindi Herman. “It’s just another steppingstone forward for a positive reflection on the project.”

Cindi Herman’s Skwentna Roadhouse is the only property that would have a close connection to the West Susitna Access Road. Farther up the route, the owner of Rainy Pass Lodge, Steve Perrins, opposes the project.

Skwentna Roadhouse

Cindi Herman’s Skwentna Roadhouse is the only property that would have a close connection to the West Susitna Access Road. Farther up the route, the owner of Rainy Pass Lodge, Steve Perrins, opposes the project.

Skwentna Roadhouse

Cindi Herman's Skwentna Roadhouse

Herman, who owns Skwentna Roadhouse and is a year-round Skwentna resident, is an ardent advocate of enhancing road access into the region. The area is hard to get to, and only a limited number of people have the means to access it by airplane and watercraft, Herman says. “If [WSAR] is approved, it will alleviate the already over-hunted and over-fished roads that we already have,” she says. “It’s a beautiful area that needs to be shared by all Alaskans… God gave us the properties in the ground, and he didn’t give them to us to sit on but for us to use them.”

As a long-time Alaskan, Herman says she has seen many projects get studied and then nixed due to the influence of well-funded adversaries. However, she is diligently working to ensure a different outcome for the proposed West Susitna Road project. “The main reason I got involved was to prevent negative people—who don’t even live in Alaska—from stopping progress,” she says. “So many things have been stopped because of the negative people who say they want to protect Alaska, but they really just want to protect their private interests.”

“If [WSAR] is approved, it will alleviate the already over-hunted and over-fished roads that we already have… It’s a beautiful area that needs to be shared by all Alaskans.”

Cindi Herman, President, Friends of West Susitna

Driving By Alaskans
While the Alaska Outdoor Council approves of the WSAR, it has not endorsed the industrial-only AAP because it is not intended for public use. Likewise, Doyon, Limited—an Alaska Native regional corporation that owns about twelve miles of land near Evansville along the proposed right-of-way—does not support the proposed Ambler Road. “Doyon does not support the road to Ambler and has never offered a statement of support; nor have we engaged in a discussion about Doyon lands as rights of way for the project,” Doyon says in a statement on its website. “While we also do not oppose the road to Ambler, we have offered pointed criticism of both the project and its proponents in public comments.”
When any type of development is being addressed or promoted, there will always be opposition, Weitzner says. “There are people who do not want to see our resources be developed and access be provided—but it is important for our growth,” he says.

From the perspective of Ambler Metals, the access road is a matter of energy security. “The US and the state of Alaska have reached a pivotal point in a shift to a greener economy and energies,” Fawaz says. “Though fossil fuels still play a major role, there is a stronger demand for critical minerals for renewable energies, electric vehicles, and batteries… It is imperative for the US to promote the sourcing of critical minerals in the US for its clean energy policy.”

headshot of Cindi Herman
Cindi Herman
Friends of West Susitna
Weitzner sees both access roads as a first step toward Alaska’s economic sufficiency. “It is critical that we get these projects in place,” he says. “If we are stopped on this, there is a gap on economic development that cannot be filled by the federal government. We are looking to drive this by Alaskans for Alaska for our continued economic development as a state.”