Roads Change Everything

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In Alaska, when politicians talk about building “Roads to Resources”-- new roads through pristine areas to get access to fossil fuels and minerals--the road often appears as a thin line on a map. No big deal.

In reality, a road changes everything. Despite taking up little land area themselves, roads alter wildlife habitat for miles around. They’re responsible for the vast bulk of water pollution in forested areas. Even more significant, perhaps, roads industrialize a landscape. In at least one instance, it’s a landscape I know very well.

The haul road to the North Slope, built for maintenance on the Alaska pipeline, as seen from the air in 1976.

 In 1976, I arrived in the Alaskan interior with my two brothers. We had come to climb in the Arrigetch Peaks, a part of the Brooks Range, now in the Gates of the Arctic National Park. We flew into Bettles—where the town’s entire phone book was written on a 3x5 index card above a pay phone—to get a float plane that would take us to a turn in the Alatna River, from where we’d walk in to the valley. The main traffic in town consisted of helicopters taking people to mining exploration sites. Having never been in a helicopter, I begged a pilot to take us on a short ride.

Today, little has changed in Bettles. Roads are few, and the main traffic remains helicopters. But that could all change with the push for a 200-mile long concrete stretch of road that would connect potential mining sites near the town of Ambler to the Dalton Highway. As Gretel Ehrlich explains in her account of rafting down the Kobuk River in OnEarth, the whoosh of helicopters in Bettles, population 26, might soon give way to the rumble of trucks--300 to 400 trucks a day, laden with mining ore, going at 70 miles per hour. While these roads would certainly make business more profitable for the oil and mining industries, they would also cut through a good chunk of roadless Alaska, changing the landscape forever.

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This tent was our home for a month in the roadless Alaskan interior.

Back in 1976, the talk was about how the haul road along the Alaska pipeline was changing things. Fortunately, that road was far from the Arrigetch Peaks. We were one of the first climbing groups to visit, and the area was pristine. Our plane dropped us off at the river and came back a few days later to air-drop food for us. We had chosen a patch of soft, boggy land for this purpose, but it was the pilot’s first air-drop. He missed. Our food bags landed--or rather, exploded--on the rocks beyond instead. Not a pretty sight when you know you won’t be seeing that plane again for a month. 

Luckily, we were able to retrieve most of our food, spooning up oatmeal and nuts from the rocks, and we stayed. Except for one jet passing far overhead, and a helicopter that saw our tent and dropped in to ask if we had seen any interesting rock outcroppings, we saw no one. We climbed a few unclimbed peaks and found new routes up others. Hanging glaciers shone white on the mountainsides; according to recent photos, they are now mostly gone. We saw a few bears (thankfully, at a distance), many birds and smaller critters. We scooped up the clean, cold water from glacial streams and lakes and drank it straight, no filter.

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Melting glaciers provided us with clean, cold water throughout our trip.

As I read Ehrlich’s account, it seemed to me that apart from the vanishing glaciers, little has changed in this part of Alaska in the past 35 years. In fact, little has changed in this landscape over the past 14,000 years. As Ehrlich writes, the Inuit hunters who crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska saw essentially the same flowers and shrubs that we see today.

Building a road in a place such as this—a place where roads have never been--can irrevocably alter, in the space of a year, what the passage of millennia has not. But Alaska’s governor is pushing for many more roads that would cross ancient landscapes and pristine rivers to connect mining and drilling sites to ports and major highways. 

In pristine, salmon-rich Bristol Bay, plans for the proposed Pebble Mine include an 86-mile road through an active earthquake zone to Cook Inlet, home of endangered Beluga whales. In the North Slope, a slew of proposed roads for drilling sites would harm local fish harvests, disrupt caribou migration patterns and fragment moose habitat. The proposed Ambler road alone will cut through 100 rivers and wetlands, creating a conduit for toxic mining waste to enter and pollute waterways. The state has already spent $10 million in state transportation funds on the project, which has yet to receive approval.

These roads will temporarily boost profit margins for oil and mining companies. Their devastating impact on the land and its people, however, will likely be irrevocable. 

We felt sad as we walked out of the Arrigetch and headed for our pickup site near the river. We thought that if we only had an axe, we could cut trees for a raft and float down the river for another month. We didn’t want to leave. But our sister was getting married, and we had to get home.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to form such a connection to pristine wilderness. It is rare. And it only happens when there is no road.

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We were one of the first groups to climb in the Arrigetch Peaks.

NRDC and our members, together with local groups in Alaska, are fighting to protect Alaskan lands, wildlife and culture, as well as 60 million acres of roadless areas in Alaska and the lower 48 states. As Ehrlich says, we are not saving the land so much as it is saving us. Alaska’s boreal forest is a vast carbon sink that cools the Earth. Its land and waters provide sustenance for people, birds and bears; and even if you’ve never been there, this land is the embodiment of the idea of Nature that holds such an important place in our consciousness.

We don’t want to be the generation that lets it vanish.