Back in November, Field & Stream reported on a growing movement to stop a proposed industrial road through the heart of one of Alaska’s most pristine hunting and fishing destinations. The so-called Ambler Road would have stretched for 211-miles, providing foreign mining outfits ready access to mineral deposits in the foothills of the southern Brooks Range, near Alaska’s Arctic Circle. It also would have posed grave threats to iconic wildlife species like sheefish and barren ground caribou, opponents argued at the time. Now, thanks in large part to the steady opposition of organized hunters and anglers, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has announced its intent to deny a permit for the road later this year.

“The BLM is acknowledging that the risks of the proposed Ambler Road far outweigh the rewards,” said Jen Leahy, Alaska Senior Program Manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), in a press release issued early this morning. “This milestone is the result of broad opposition to this project, led by local residents and Alaska Native Tribes, and supported by thousands of conservation-minded hunters and anglers from across the country.”

The Ambler Road has been a bone of contention among Alaskans for years, but Leahy and the TRCP recently spearheaded a coalition that brought the proposed project to the attention of hunters and anglers beyond the Brooks Range and the borders of Alaska. “Sportsmen and sportswomen have helped turn the tide of public opinion against the Ambler Road,” she said. “We appreciate the BLM recognizing this in their preferred alternative.”

An aerial photo of the Brook Range.

The BLM came to its decision after months of analyzing possible impacts the road could have had on fish and wildlife, native subsistence practices, and outdoor recreation in and around the the Brooks Range. The agency ultimately selected the “No Action” alternative in its final “Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).” The SEIS is not the last word, Leahy said. That won’t come until the BLM issues a final decision. But today’s news is an undeniable leap in that direction.

“While the BLM’s ‘No Action’ finding is a cause for celebration, our most important work is still ahead,” said Leahy. “Until the agency issues a final decision, hunters and anglers will remain engaged to help ensure a positive outcome and defend the Brooks Range from future threats.”

Caribou In The Clear?

The Ambler Road would have cut through the heart of critical habitat for one of Alaska’s largest remaining caribou herds, and potential impacts to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd were undoubtedly top of mind when the BLM announced its use of the ‘No Action’ alternative for its SEIS. But it wasn’t just potential impacts form the road itself that caused concern among locals familiar with the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.

Jim Dau is a retired caribou biologist who worked for the Alaska Department of Game & Fish for nearly three decades. In February, he told Field & Stream that the SEIS made no mention of how the open-pit mines at the end of the Ambler Road would have impacted the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which is already struggling with substantial population declines.

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd is one of the largest remaining herds in Alaska. Jim Dau.

“There’s never a good time to fragment the home range of any migratory species. But this is a particularly bad time to do that to this caribou herd,” he said. “The Ambler Road isn’t the only concern. It would also facilitate the establishment of industrial mining in the Brooks Range. We’ve not been told what would happen in terms of growth with that mining operation—or what would happen once the resources are finally gone.”

Dau said that once mines dry up, they leave massive piles of contaminated dirt that leach into water and soil. And there would likely be scores of other access roads that spur off of each individual mining development. If such development were to occur, the Brooks Range could forever loose the remote feel that’s made it so famous with hunters and anglers around the world.

And caribou number would be likely to decline ever further, Dau said, which could limit available tags for resident and non-resident hunters alike. According the Hunters and Anglers for the Brooks Range, the Ambler Road could have led at least four open-pit mines spanning roughly 400,000 acres. But without an Ambler Road providing access to mineral deposits in the southern Brooks, it seems unlikely that massive mines will sprout up in prime caribou country any time soon.

Saving Sheefish

Caribou weren’t the only species of concern listed in the BLM’s Supplemental EIS. The Ambler Road would have crossed 11 major waterways on its way into the mining district, creating nearly 3,000 culverts, which are known to disrupt the natural flow of wild rivers. One famous river in the road’s crosshairs is the Kobuk. It’s home to arctic grayling, northern pike, and lake trout, but it’s best known for its sheefish—a coveted sportfish often referred to as the “tarpon of the north.”

Greg Halbach guides for sheefish on the Kobuk every year, mainly for clients who want to catch the once-in-a-lifetime species on a fly rod. “Parts of the Kobuk are very clear and these fish tend to hang out in deep outside bends, tailwaters, and flats in three or four feet of water,” Halbach tells F&S. “A lot of times we’re able to effectively sight fish to big groups of sheefish. We usually throw big, gaudy streamer on 11 weight rods, and they get pretty aggressive.” They also get big, Hlabach says, with trophy specimens weighing as much as 60 pounds and taping out at more than 40 inches.

Sheefish are a species of whitefish commonly called “the tarpon the north.” Greg Halbach, Remote Waters.

Road runoff and mining sediment could have obvious impacts on the water clarity that makes sheefishing on the Kobuk such an epic angling experience, Halbach says, and it could also change the way that the fish reproduce. “The fish are running up a couple hundred miles and most of them are spawning in that upper stretch of the river where they wanted to build the road,” he says. “There’s a finite amount of truly wild and remote places left in the world, and the Kobuk is one of them. Putting an industrial road across one of the last chunks of real remote country that we have left would be crazy.”

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What’s Next?

Today’s announcement is notable for conservationists who want the wild and remote Brooks Range to remain fully intact, but the most vocal opponents of the Ambler Road aren’t letting up on the gas anytime soon. Leahy said the BLM’s final decision on the road won’t come until later this year, and that the agency will continue to field comments from hunters and anglers until that decision is reached. If you’d like to sign a petition urging the BLM to make these potential protections official, you can do so here.