Plunging oil prices are saving Alaskan ecosystems — for now

The new governor shelves controversial roads, dams and other developments.

 

It’s hard to find a place more remote than Bettles, Alaska. The village of 15 people lies 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the Koyukuk River, accessible to the outside world only by an ice road, boat or plane. And 69-year-old mayor Gary Hanchett likes it that way. “I love the country,” he says in a slow, gravelly voice. “To this day I don’t see myself ever living south of the (Yukon).” 

But former Governor Sean Parnell targeted the region around Bettles for one of a handful of “mega-projects,” huge developments meant to create jobs and tap into Alaska’s untouched resources. In this case, the resource was copper, and the project a 220-mile long mining road that would cross more than 100 streams and rivers, countless acres of tundra and wetlands, and Gates of the Arctic National Park. It would also trundle right past Hanchett’s house, bringing exhaust fumes and possibly asbestos dust to a place where he usually smokes fish.

Karen Minot / National Parks Conservation Association

Hanchett has been doggedly fighting the proposed Ambler Road for more than two years. But the best news he’s gotten came on Jan. 22, when newly-elected Independent Governor Bill Walker unveiled his 2016 budget plan: All funding for the road had been cut. 

Similar controversial developments, including the plan to build a 735-foot-tall hydropower dam across the salmon-rich Susitna River, were also axed. While this doesn’t mean the projects are permanently off the table, opponents regard it as hugely positive development. “They won’t say ‘no, we’re done with it,’” says Mike Wood, president of the board of the Susitna River Coalition. But “I suspect they’ll shelve it. (The dam) is not in Alaska’s best interest financially or for the salmon. The overall sentiment is there’s no longer a place for these behemoth dams.”

Walker’s no bleeding-heart environmentalist, though. The reason he’s shelved the developments is because Alaska derives 90 percent of its revenue from oil, and with global oil prices down 50 percent in the last six months — due in part to the shale oil revolution in the Lower 48 — the state is looking at a $3.5 billion budget deficit. So ironically, while Alaskan environmentalists are raising their glasses to the halt of harmful development, their counterparts to the south are in court and at drill sites, protesting.

Alaskan environmentalists I spoke with also wanted to be clear that while they’re thrilled pristine landscapes are being temporarily spared, they’re not celebrating the dearth of revenue, which will affect schools, scientific research and other budget items. But they are cautiously optimistic that the situation bodes well for the future of Alaskan ecosystems. Walker hasn’t taken a position on his predecessor’s mega-projects — he says each one will be re-examined — but Mike Wood finds solace in the fact that the governor has come out swinging in favor of building a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to the state's southern coast. If it’s built, Wood believes the state’s need for energy will be solved, rendering the Susitna Dam obsolete. 

Wild salmon in Alaska's Susitna River, where work on a proposed dam was recently halted.
Matt Stoecker / Stoecker Ecological

Plus, Walker seems eager to do right by Alaska Natives. Whether that will extend to honoring Arctic villages’ opposition to the Ambler Road, though, is still unclear. There’s also the chance that state legislators will try to slip money for mega-projects back into the final budget, due later this month. Gary Hanchett, for one, doesn’t see mining interests giving up on the Ambler Road any time soon. “As long as there’s a possibility that someone get rich,” he says. “It matters not where or how.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News.