When Congress established Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in 1980, it reserved a vast and essentially untouched area of natural beauty and scientific value in Alaska's Brooks Range. The park's eight million acres are without roads and include glaciated valleys, rugged mountains, arctic tundra, and boreal forest inhabited by caribou, Dall's sheep, wolves, and bears. Congress recognized that the wild and undeveloped character of the land and the opportunities it affords for solitude and wilderness travel were a special value of the Park and Preserve.
Congress also recognized, and protected opportunities for subsistence use of park resources by local rural residents.
Before the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) created Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (GAAR), the likelihood of rich mineral deposits in the Ambler Mining District, to the west of the park, had already been identified. Congress, in considering the establishment of GAAR, recognized that a transportation corridor to the Ambler Mining District might become desirable, and might connect with the Dalton Highway to the east of the Park. The upper Kobuk River area was included in Gates of the Arctic National Park as a Preserve. However, Congress made allowances for a transportation corridor across the new preserve in order to provide access for future development of mineral resources in the Ambler area.
ANILCA, Section 201(4)(b) states, "Congress finds that there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road) and the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection."
In November 2010, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT&PF) notified the National Park Service (NPS) of its intention to submit an application for such access. A road from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District would be approximately 200 miles long. Approximately 20 miles of a potential access route would cross Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.
ANILCA 201(4)(c) directs that upon receipt of an application for a right-of-way across the GAAR preserve a notice will be published in the Federal Register announcing a 30-day period for others to apply for access.
ANILCA 201(4)(d) directs the Department of Interior's and the Department of Transportation's response to a right-of-way application. The Secretaries of Interior and Transportation, upon receipt of an application, are to prepare an environmental and economic analysis for determining the most desirable route for the right-of-way, and for determining terms and conditions which may be required. This analysis is to be done in lieu of an environmental impact statement which would otherwise be required under section 102(2)(c) of the National Environmental Policy Act. (ANILCA §201(4)(d)).
The analysis is to consider:
- alternative routes across the Preserve which would result in fewer or less severe impacts on the preserve
- environmental, social, and economic impacts of the right of way on wildlife, fish, their habitat, and rural and traditional lifestyles including subsistence, and measures which should be taken to minimize negative impacts and enhance positive impacts.
ANILCA, in creating GAAR, declared that it shall be managed:
To maintain the wild and undeveloped character of the area, including opportunities for visitors to experience solitude, and the natural environmental integrity and scenic beauty of the mountains, forelands, rivers, lakes, and other natural features;to provide continued opportunities, including reasonable access, for mountain climbing, mountaineering, and other wilderness recreational activities;and to protect habitat for and the populations of, fish and wildlife, including, but not limited to, caribou, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, moose, wolves, and raptorial birds. (ANILCA §201(4)(a))
GAAR is also managed to provide continued opportunities for subsistence uses by local residents, where such uses are traditional. Although sport hunting is not allowed within Gates of the Arctic National Park, non-local harvest of game is allowed within the two Gates of the Arctic National Preserve units.
The NPS is required to evaluate impacts of permitting a right-of-way on subsistence uses and needs (ANILCA §810). The NPS has conducted community visits to talk about subsistence uses and important traditional cultural resources in the Preserve.
The United States has a unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribal governments, and in recognition of that special relationship and pursuant to direction given by the Secretary of the Interior, the NPS will consult on a government to government basis with federally recognized tribes whose interests may be directly affected by the right-of-way permit and road. Consultation will be conducted in good faith to secure informed decision making, and will occur throughout the environmental and economic analysis described in ANILCA 201 (d). (DOI Policy on Consultation with Indian Tribes, 2011)NPS will consult with corporations formed through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA) whose interests may be directly and substantially affected by a right-of-way permit and road (Appropriations Act of 2004 &2005).
In November 2010, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT&PF) notified the National Park Service (NPS) of its intention to submit an application for access across the Kobuk River area of Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (GAAR).
The Alaska Legislature funded ADOT&PF to study the feasibility of constructing a road from the Dalton Highway (Trans Alaska Pipeline Haul Road) to the Ambler Mining District. Overland routes to the mining district, including two potential routes through the GAAR Preserve, were identified.
In 2013 the State of Alaska assigned the lead for the Ambler Mining District Access project to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), a public corporation of the State of Alaska. AIDEA has contracted with DOWL, a private engineering firm, to acquire environmental and economic data to inform road feasibility and route decisions, to prepare preliminary road designs, and to prepare an application for a ROW.
The NPS has issued permits for State sponsored research activities in the Park and Preserve related to resources which may impact or be impacted by a road. The research projects are centered in the southern portion of GAAR, and include a snow survey, fisheries surveys, a wetlands and wetland vegetation survey, hydrologic and hydraulic surveys of the Kobuk and the Reed Rivers, cultural resource reconnaissance surveys and investigation of material sources.
An NPS team of park and regional staff was formed in May 2013 to address NPS responsibilities in responding to a right-of-way application. The NPS team is working with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), who represents the Secretary of Transportation on this project. FHWA provides extensive technical expertise on road design and appropriate terms for a right-of-way.
The NPS has conducted studies on archaeological resources, bears, caribou, fisheries, natural soundscapes, water resources, wilderness and recreational values to inform the environmental analysis.
The Secretaries are to complete their economic and environmental analysis within one year of the receipt of a right-of-way application;and to have the draft completed within nine months of receipt. Within 60 days of the completion of the environmental and economic analysis, the Secretaries are to agree upon a route for issuance of the right-of-way across the preserve. The right-of-way will be issued in accordance with the provisions of ANILCA § 1107. (ANILCA §201(4)(e)).