Road Kill

It’s not tyranny we desire; it’s a just, limited, federal government.” – Alexander Hamilton

The James W. Dalton Highway is a 414-mile, two-lane road that runs parallel to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Also known as Alaska Route 11 and the North Slope Haul Road, the famously dangerous and remote north-south thoroughfare begins outside Fairbanks and ends just shy of the Arctic Circle. Built in less than a year by a consortium of oil and gas companies in 1974, the highway was made available for public use in 1994. Given the paucity of towns, gas stations, and hospitals along its path, authorities caution against embarking on the journey without packing suitable survival gear.

Not for the faint of heart | Getty

In the years after the Dalton Highway was constructed, the prospect of adding east-west roadways as a means of accessing Alaska’s interior was hotly debated. Prospectors angled for untold riches in the vast expanses of the state’s wilderness, while environmentalists argued to protect all wilderness with inaccessibility, regardless of the prize. It had been known for decades, for example, that the Ambler Mining District—a remote area located in the southern Brooks Range some 200 miles west of the Dalton Highway—held significant deposits of copper, zinc, gold, rare earth metals, and other valuable minerals. As we’ll see, connecting Ambler to the Dalton Highway has proved rather challenging.

In 1980, the US Congress got involved when it passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), a bill meant to balance preserving Alaska’s beautiful environment with the state’s desire to develop its resources for the economic benefit of its citizens. Section 201(4)(b) of the law specifically calls out what has become known as the Ambler Road, and unequivocally orders the Secretary of the Interior to permit its construction:

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 [of the Interior] shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection.

Anticipating administrative stalling tactics and endless legal battles over the issue, Congress was unambiguous about its intent and outlined this further in the bill:

The Secretary [of the Interior] and the Secretary of Transportation shall jointly prepare an environmental and economic analysis solely for the purpose of determining the most desirable route for the right-of-way and terms and conditions which may be required for the issuance of that right-of-way. This analysis shall be completed within one year and the draft thereof within nine months of the receipt of the application and shall be prepared in lieu of an environmental impact statement which would otherwise be required under section 102(2)(C) of the National Environmental Policy Act. Such analysis shall be deemed to satisfy all requirements of that Act and shall not be subject to judicial review.

If only it were that easy.

Four and a half decades after Congress settled the issue, the Ambler Road project remains stuck on the drawing board and looks increasingly unlikely to ever get built. It’s a bewildering story of an out-of-control administrative state openly defying elected officials, shrewd legal maneuvering on the part of anti-everything environmentalists, and the inability of the US to become self-sufficient in the metals needed to facilitate the so-called green energy transition.

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