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.   

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...