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BLM Poised to Deny Permit for Industrial Corridor That Threatens World-Class Hunting and Fishing in Alaska’s Brooks Range

Today, the Bureau of Land Management released the final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement concerning the proposed Ambler Industrial Road in Alaska’s Brooks Range. The development proposal has gained national attention for its potential to permanently alter the remote character of Alaska’s largest remaining swath of wild country.

After months of analyzing the potential impacts of the major industrial corridor on fish, wildlife, rural subsistence, and outdoor recreation in the region, the BLM selected the “No Action” alternative in the final SEIS, which indicates the agency’s intent to deny the permit for the Ambler Industrial Road later this year.

“Today’s announcement is a big step toward an enormous conservation win for all Americans who value the unbroken landscapes, exceptional habitat, and opportunities for solitude in this awe-inspiring region,” said Lewis Pagel, owner of Arctic Fishing Adventures in Kotzebue, Alaska.

“By selecting the ‘No Action’ alternative in this final environmental review, the BLM is acknowledging that the risks of the proposed Ambler Road far outweigh the rewards,” said Jen Leahy, Alaska senior program manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

“This milestone is the result of broad opposition to this project, led by local residents and Alaska Native Tribes, and supported by thousands of conservation-minded hunters and anglers from across the country,” continued Leahy, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. “Those sportsmen and sportswomen have helped turn the tide of public opinion against the Ambler Road, and we appreciate the BLM recognizing this in their preferred alternative.”

Known as the Ambler Road, the proposed private industrial corridor would partially bisect the home range of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, one of Alaska’s largest remaining herds. The 211-mile industrial corridor would cross 11 major rivers and require nearly 3,000 culverts, degrading habitat and potentially impeding fish passage for species such as Arctic grayling and sheefish.

“Brooks Range rivers are beautiful, wild, and there are few other places like them in the world,” said fly fishing guide Greg Halbach of Remote Waters in Anchorage, Alaska. Halbach’s small operation offers guided wilderness floats on the Kobuk River, one of the only places in North America to target sheefish—also known as “tarpon of the north.”

“Roads are the very opposite of remote and wild,” Halbach said. “A single road can fragment habitat, disrupt wildlife migrations, and introduce chemical pollutants on a scale much wider than the narrow strip of gravel that we see. A float down the Kobuk River that included passing under bridges and listening to the hammering of engine brakes from tractor-trailers would be a radically different recreational experience.”

The proposed Ambler Road has prompted strong opposition from the hunting and fishing community. In 2023, more than 40 Alaska-based businesses, leading outdoor brands, and conservation organizations launched Hunters & Anglers for the Brooks Range. The collective—which includes guides, outfitters, and transporters who operate in the Brooks Range—is urging the Bureau of Land Management to deny the permit for the private industrial corridor. To date, the growing coalition has delivered nearly 10,000 individual letters to the agency opposing the Ambler Road.

“While the BLM’s ‘No Action’ finding is a cause for celebration, our most important work is still ahead,” said Leahy. “Until the agency issues a final decision, hunters and anglers will remain engaged to help ensure a positive outcome and defend the Brooks Range from future threats.”

Sign the petition opposing the Ambler Industrial Road here.

Q&A: Kelly Reynolds

Kelly Reynolds is a pilot, hunter, trapper, adventurer, and photographer who lives in Fairbanks.
A lifelong Alaskan, she lives to explore the wild north. There is no place wilder than the Brooks Range, so Reynolds tries to get in as much time as she can chasing game and adventures up there. And her love of this area comes through in her impressive photography.

Reynolds believes that, as hunters and anglers, it is our duty to be good stewards of the wild places and wildlife we love. She points out that the proposed Ambler Road threatens this core principle. If built, the 211-mile industrial corridor across the Brooks Range, aimed at supporting the development of an unknown number of open-pit mines, would diminish the quality of the region’s land, wildlife, and outdoor experiences.

Here is her story.

What do you enjoy doing in the Brooks Range?

I love exploring the Brooks Range, especially from the air. My primary purpose up there is usually hunting, but I also cherish the moments I spend there for other recreational purposes.

Can you share a favorite memory from your time in the Brooks Range?

One of the most memorable experiences was a sheep hunt with my husband. While we had both explored the Brooks Range before, this was the first time we flew ourselves. Piloting our own plane from Fairbanks into the Brooks to go hunting felt like a dream come true. We saw the most gorgeous views both from the air and on the ground during that trip. The weather varied greatly, from warm days to lots of rain, yet the beauty remained constant.

I remember watching morning fog slowly roll over mountains like a river, caribou running across the tundra, the river transforming throughout a rainstorm, and discovering fish in unexpected streams. We listened to the wind snug in our sleeping bags and watched a white wolf hunt along a hill while ewes and lambs ate and played.

The experiences are easy to describe, but what’s truly hard to convey is how beautiful the land is and how it makes you feel when you’re in it.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Reynolds

What would you love to do there next?

I have plans to go this summer, hopefully for a float trip. I will be hunting there in the fall, as well.

Think of your first trip to the Brooks – what was different than you expected?
The Brooks Range is so diverse. Any direction you look, the land looks different from where you just came from. It’s amazing to see.

What is most special about this place?

The Brooks Range is so special because it’s so untouched. That is truly magical to me. I live and recreate in Alaska because I love to explore remote locations, particularly where no human has seen or set foot before. The beauty of the Brooks Range is truly hard to describe. It just makes me want to keep coming back and keep exploring new places.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Reynolds

What’s one piece of essential gear you’d recommend packing or advice you’d share with someone going to the Brooks for the first time?

My one piece of advice for someone visiting the Brooks for the first time would be to have a flexible schedule. Allow yourself plenty of time to explore. If you’re driving up the Dalton Highway and you think it will take you X number of hours, give yourself more time, because you’ll want to stop and take in the sights. If you’re hunting, ensure you give yourself extra time on each end of your trip in case of weather delays.

The one thing I can’t go without in the Brooks Range is a plane! It’s truly the best way to take in the Brooks, in my opinion.

How do you think your experience in the Brooks would change if the Ambler Road was built? What do hunters and anglers stand to lose?

The construction of the Ambler Road would likely bring about significant changes to the way hunters, anglers, and all outdoor enthusiasts experience the place. I foresee impacts including disruption to wildlife habitat that could lead to a potential decline in game populations and hunting opportunities. Additionally, the environmental consequences – like land erosion, water pollution, and damage to vegetation – could impact the overall health of the ecosystem and diminish the quality of fishing experiences.

For me, hunting and fishing is not my biggest concern. We are fortunate enough to have the privilege of harvesting animals from the land and maintaining our traditions in that way, but a sustainable future that protects wildlife and the land is more important.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Reynolds

What aspect of the proposed Ambler Road project concerns you most?

Mainly that the construction of the Ambler Road could greatly diminish the quality of experiences in the Brooks Range for everyone. While I support the responsible use of natural resources, I believe that the Brooks Range is not the appropriate location for such development.

I’m concerned about severe impacts on the land, both at the mine sites and along the road, as well as the negative effects on wildlife, such as changes in migration patterns. The increased traffic on the Dalton Highway would be another major concern. These impacts are irreversible and go against our responsibility as Alaskans to protect our land, especially considering the scarcity of untouched areas today.

Preserving our outdoor experiences and ensuring the sustainability of our land is not only important for us but also for future generations. I am deeply troubled by the potential consequences if the Ambler Road is constructed and mining activities commence. It raises serious questions about the future of the Brooks Range.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve heard about the project?

One prevalent misconception I’ve encountered is the notion that it’s solely a road development initiative. There’s a crucial aspect often overlooked — multiple substantial open-pit mines are integral to this project. The footprint of a road is one thing, but the development of these open pit mines is another. And that can never be reversed.

Furthermore, the public won’t have access to this road for a very long time, possibly not even within my lifetime. Instead, it’s the foreign corporations engaging in land development in Alaska that will exclusively benefit from accessing these areas.

Another major misconception that I’ve heard is that wildlife will not be impacted by the traffic traveling the Ambler Road. It was eye-opening to see the studies done by Fish and Game on the impact on the caribou migration from the Red Dog Mine’s road. There will unfortunately be some wildlife casualties on the road, but the major issue is the impact on these animals’ migration patterns. I would encourage everyone to look at that data, which clearly illustrates that there have been tremendous impacts on wildlife by a much smaller road and mine.

Why is it important that hunters and anglers across the nation speak up against the proposed Ambler Road?

I believe as hunters and anglers it is our duty to protect the outdoors. We are first and foremost stewards of the lands and wildlife that we enjoy so much. Whether someone has seen it or has never been to the Brooks Range, it is important to speak up against the proposed Ambler Road. If this plan advances, it sets a precedent for further development that could compromise so much more of the Brooks Range.

What It’s Really Like to Hunt the Brooks Range

Feature photo courtesy of Kelly Reynolds

When the snow is deep in the Brooks Range, caribou will often use the high mountain ridges for easier access to forage and to better evade wolves. I killed a bull high up on one such ridge years ago. Instead of gutting the caribou right away, I sat next to him and stared out across the mountains and valleys that stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction.

To enjoy a moment like that is the most basic yet soul-filling reason that I hunt wild country.

The Magic of the Brooks

As a lifelong Alaskan and hunter, I’ve encountered few, if any, places that better embody the “spirit of the hunt” more than the Brooks Range. And this feeling is shared by just about everyone I’ve met who has spent time hunting its mountains and valleys.

The Brooks Range is Alaska’s northernmost mountain range. It stretches more than 700 miles across Alaska, from the border of Canada’s Yukon territory almost all the way to the Chukchi Sea. The north side of the range is open country, while much of the south is a mixture of boreal forest and tundra.

All mountain ranges are inspiring but there is something extra unique, even magical, about the Brooks. Trying to describe that magic is difficult, but most who’ve been there say it has to do with the remoteness, the incredible wildlife, and a sense of timelessness that you can’t really find anywhere else in the world.
But for the last several years, the proposed Ambler Road has hung over the future of the Brooks Range like a shadow.

If built, the Ambler Road would be a 211-mile private industrial corridor designed to help foreign-owned companies develop at least four open-pit mines in the western part of the range. It would damage fish and wildlife habitat, negatively altering the place for local and visiting hunters, as well as other outdoor recreationists.

This is why hunters and anglers recently celebrated the Bureau of Land Management’s final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, which indicates the agency’s intention to prevent construction of the Ambler Road. While this is great news, it’s not the final step in the process, and sportsmen and sportswomen await the BLM’s binding decision later this year. In the meantime, the outdoor community needs to continue to stay engaged to keep the Brooks Range a place where dream hunts can come true.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Sapena

Like a Fever Dream

The Brooks Range offers many opportunities to hunt animals like moose, Dall sheep, and grizzlies, but, more than any other species, it’s caribou that embody the arctic wilderness. Most visiting hunters come with the hope of taking a nice animal but, once in the field, realize the killing part is only a small aspect of what makes a hunt in the Brooks Range exceptional.

Jim Dau is a retired caribou biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He has lived in Kotzebue in northwest Alaska since 1988, serving as the area biologist for 15 years, then, for ten years, as the biologist for the Western Arctic Caribou herd. Dau points out how vital caribou are for people, a wide range of dependent wildlife, and even the land.

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of caribou to people, especially subsistence users out here,” Dau says. “For a lot of nonlocals, hunting the Western Arctic Caribou herd is the trip of a lifetime. But a big surprise for people from the Lower 48 is how wild the place is. It’s so hard to find solitude these days. Here, you can.”

Bill Vanderheyden, owner and chief engineer of Iron Will Outfitters, which makes broadheads and archery gear, has hunted the Brooks Range three times and says there is no place on earth like it.

“I’ve hunted a number of wilderness areas in the Lower 48, but nothing nearly this remote,” Vanderheyden says. “The feeling of being truly remote and alone was unexpected, but also fed my soul.”

Vanderheyden encountered wildlife including muskox, wolverines, bears, wolves, and caribou. One experience that really stands out for him was while he was stalking a group of caribou.

“Two big white wolves cut in and proceeded to chase the caribou over a ridge,” he says. “It felt timeless, like man had been sharing the landscape with these wild animals, hunting caribou with a bow and arrow alongside the other predators for thousands of years.”

Ryan Sapena, the marketing manager for Seek Outside, says the Brooks Range is in a class of its own. When his great uncle – the family’s most revered hunting mentor – passed on, Sapena and his dad and brother used a portion of the inheritance to make a fly-in caribou hunt to the Brooks Range in his honor.

“You can’t compare the Brooks Range to another place,” Sapena says. “The trip was crazy. It’s hard to explain it to someone. It was kind of like a fever dream.”

The first morning, Sapena was outside his tent, waking up with a cup of coffee. Suddenly, a cow and calf caribou came charging across the tundra toward camp. A wolf was chasing them. The three animals were within 75 yards when the wolf smelled the men. The wolf stopped and stared at Sapena and his brother.

“The wolf looked almost disappointed that we hadn’t helped in slowing his quarry down,” Sapena says. “Then it was almost as if it sighed and continued after the cow and calf. I remember feeling more a part of the natural cycle than I had ever been. It was something that I will probably never get to experience again.”

Photo by Bjorn Dihle

At All Costs

Toward the end of my conversation with Sapena, we talked about the challenges of conserving wild places as civilization and its desire for resources extracted from the land continues to grow. There are no easy solutions to achieving a decent balance between the two. But he believes that the Brooks Range offers far more value left the way it is than it would if it were turned into a mining district.

“The Brooks Range is a place that, at all costs, should be protected,” he says.

When I reflect on my hunts and wanderings in the Brooks Range, they do feel like dreams. I remember the night after I killed the bull on the ridge, four wolves visited my camp. In the morning, their tracks showed that they had come within a few yards of the tent. Without breaking their stride, they ran a circle around the bull and another dead caribou we had stashed nearby, before heading in a straight line toward a valley where a herd of caribou had been the day before.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was just business as usual for the Brooks Range.

To maintain the Brooks Range as a dream hunting mecca for hunters and anglers, we need to stay engaged and continue to let the BLM know that sportsmen and sportswomen oppose the Ambler Road before the agency makes its final decision later this year.

Sign the petition to defend the Brooks Range’s unrivaled hunting opportunities.

Q&A: Greg Halbach

Greg Halbach lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and is the owner of flyfishing guide company Remote Waters, which offers wilderness float trips targeting sheefish and other species in the Brooks Range. He had already explored a lot of the best fishing opportunities in Alaska before he made his first solo float down the Kobuk River in 2018. There, he learned that the pursuit of the near-mythical sheefish with a fly rod was not only worth it, but that he wanted to be guiding in the Brooks Range from then on.

Halbach is a staunch opponent of the proposed Ambler Road. He questions the project on many levels, but what concerns him most is the likely negative effects it would have on fish populations and the wild character of the Brooks Range.

Here is his story.

What do you love most about the Brooks Range?

There are so many great things about having the opportunity to guide float trips on rivers in the Brooks Range. These rivers are beautiful, wild, and there are few other places like them in the world. The remoteness of the region is certainly one of the most appealing parts about my job up there. It’s always a little bit of a letdown to get out into the wilderness and then run into more people than you expect – it can start to feel a little crowded. That’s never been an issue on the Kobuk. We rarely run into anyone on the river, and when we do, it’s mostly locals running the river to their fish camps.

What sort of trips do you offer in the Brooks Range?

I offer guided float trips on the Kobuk River and on the Ivishak River in the Brooks Range. My trips are fully guided, 7- to 10-day trips built around some of the best flyfishing that Arctic Alaska has to offer. Each trip is tailored to the group, and there are great opportunities for photography, bird watching, and wildlife viewing, too. On the Ivishak, the options for getting out of the boats and exploring on foot are virtually limitless.

Are there particular species of fish, wildlife, or plants that are especially important to you?

On the Kobuk River, sheefish are the focus of my trips. They are a really unique fish – the largest species of whitefish in the world. The Kobuk has the best run, both in terms of numbers and size of fish. Especially for fly anglers, sheefish represent an opportunity beyond the standard trout or salmon or char routine found across much of Alaska. Even for me, it still kind of blows my mind when a client in a river way up in the Arctic hooks a huge anadromous fish that looks an awful lot like a tarpon. I think that’s what keeps me coming back as much as anything else.

What makes the Brooks Range so special or unique? Why should people in the Lower 48 care about the future of this region?

If we look at some of the most successful conservation efforts over the last century, one of the most important factors that determines which way the pendulum swings is whether or not there is a critical mass of people who care about the issue or the place. Up here in Alaska, Bristol Bay is a great example of this. The battle to preserve Bristol Bay hasn’t been waged just by people living in the Bristol Bay region, or even in Alaska. If that had been the case, that battle likely would have been lost long ago. What helped turn the tide was people from all over the country getting behind the idea that Bristol Bay is too fragile and too important as an ecosystem to put at risk with the Pebble Mine. Hunters and anglers throughout the country slapped “No Pebble Mine” bumper stickers on their vehicles and added their voices to the mix. Some have never been anywhere near Bristol Bay.

The challenge the Brooks Range faces is that because it is so remote and sparsely settled, the voice of opposition coming out of the region just isn’t loud enough. We need hunters and anglers from all over the country to voice their opposition to the Ambler Road. The area that the road would traverse is every bit as fragile as anywhere in Bristol Bay. It’s home to some of the last large and intact sub-Arctic and Arctic wilderness in North America.

What do you think most people would be surprised to know about the Brooks Range?

Where it is! When I talk with people about fishing the Kobuk, I’ll usually show them a map to orient them a bit. Virtually every time, their eyes go wide and they say something along the lines of, “Oh, it’s WAY up there!”

I think once they realize how far away it is, people get some sense of how remote and difficult to access so much of the region is. But I don’t think they have a real sense of how fragile it is. It can seem so big and remote that it’s easy to think it’s kind of untouchable. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The harshness of the climate means that scars inflicted on the land heal incredibly slowly – if at all.

What’s one piece of essential gear you’d recommend—or a piece of advice you’d share—with someone planning their first wilderness trip in the Brooks?

Leave as many devices behind as possible. It’s pretty hard to abandon them in our day-to-day modern lives, but they are much less essential once you get out into the wilderness. Definitely take what you need to be safe out there, but every look at a screen pulls you away from experiencing the incredible place you’ve traveled so far to reach.

Is there a part of the Brooks Range that you haven’t had the chance to explore but would like to? Where would you go and what would you do?

Ha, most of it! I branched out onto the North Slope for the first time last year, when I took a group down the Ivishak River in search of big char. I’m itching to get back on the North Slope; it is such an incredible landscape with huge mountain valleys opening out onto an expanse of coastal plain. I’ve also had my eye on the Marsh Fork of the Canning River for a few years. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a trip down it sooner than later.

What’s your favorite memory from all your time hunting or fishing in the Brooks Range?

One of my favorite memories comes from the Kobuk River. I was guiding a group of two. We had been on the river for six days and it had been raining non-stop the entire time. The river had blown out and fish were nowhere to be found. It felt like we were floating on the Mississippi.

On the afternoon of day seven, we reached the Pah River and the sun came out. We tied the boats off to some alders, stripped off our rain gear for the first time in days, and stretched out to soak up the sun. An hour later, we pushed off, rounded the first bend below the Pah, and floated right into a huge group of sheefish holding in an eddy. The next hour and a half were the best fishing I’ve ever seen on the Kobuk. Fish on almost every cast, the sun shining, and smiles so big they hurt. One of the best trips I’ve ever run.

What concerns you the most about the proposed Ambler Road and/or the associated mines?

There is no shortage of data on the impacts of roads and industrial development. Regardless of how well projects are designed, constructed, and maintained, their footprint extends beyond the immediate surroundings of the developed area. In the case of the region that the Ambler Road would be built through, that footprint would represent the introduction of something completely new into a fragile landscape.

The potential for negative impacts to fish populations in the Kobuk River – particularly the upper part of the watershed, where sheefish spawn – are a major worry. There are countless examples throughout the Lower 48 where degraded water quality associated with silt and runoff from roadways and mining operations have had significant adverse impacts on native fish populations. I suspect you’d have to look long and hard to find instances where roads and industrial development resulted in improved water quality and healthier fish populations.

How might you be impacted if the proposed Ambler Road were built?

A big part of what I offer on my trips is an opportunity for my clients to immerse themselves in a landscape that is wild and remote in a way that very few places still are. Roads are the very opposite of remote and wild.

A single road can fragment habitat, disrupt wildlife migrations, and introduce chemical pollutants on a scale much wider than the narrow strip of gravel that we see. A float down the Kobuk River that might include floating under a bridge and listening to the hammering of engine breaks from tractor-trailers would be a radically different experience.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve heard about the proposed Ambler Road?

The biggest misconception I’ve heard about the Ambler Project is that it makes any economic sense. This isn’t about halting all industrial development and road building throughout the state. We live in a world with 8 billion people, and we do need resources that extractive industries provide. There’s no reasonable argument against that. But not every project makes sense.

This is a project where the State of Alaska would be subsidizing the development goals of foreign mining companies, while also exposing one of our most fragile and unique ecosystems to significant environmental risk. It seems like a no-win situation from the Alaska side of things.

Floating the Kobuk River for Sheefish

[This is part two of a series on Northwest Alaska’s sheefish and how the proposed Ambler Road might affect their population. Click here to read part one about ice fishing opportunities near Kotzebue.]

The Kobuk River runs 380 miles from its headwaters in the southern Brooks Range to where it empties in the Chukchi Sea near Kotzebue. The upper 125 miles, from the put-in at Walker Lake to the Iñupiat village of Kobuk, is a renowned float trip. In fact, it’s common to hear even seasoned wilderness hunters and anglers describe a float down the Kobuk River as a trip of a lifetime.

You can do it in a week, but people who’ve made the trip recommend taking two weeks to best experience this incredible place. You can pull out at a handful of other villages below Kobuk, with the lowest on the river being Noorvik, if you want to go even further.

Fisheries ecologist Kevin Fraley has seen a lot of the wild country Alaska has to offer, but a big part of what makes the Kobuk so special for him is its sheefish. The Kobuk has the best run — and the largest sheefish — in North America. The upper river is clear water, which allows anglers to see large schools of sheefish in the limited areas where they congregate to spawn. It offers a very visual and exciting aspect to a fish that is known to hit hard and put up a good fight.

Fraley calls his first recreational trip down the Kobuk a trip of a lifetime but also a wakeup call.

“It really made me aware of the Ambler Road’s possible impact,” Fraley says. “It was kind of an awakening to me that many sheefish spawning areas are just downstream of where roads and mines would be if the road was built.”

Fraley is working on a study funded by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to get baseline contaminants data from fish in sections of the rivers that the proposed Ambler Road would cross. The 211-mile industrial corridor would cut through the southern flanks of the Brooks Range and be used to develop an unknown number of foreign-owned mines.

Angler on the Kobuk River with a large sheefish.

Most of the concern you hear about the project’s potential negative impacts is related to the Western Arctic Caribou Herd. But another big risk is damage to freshwater aquatic ecosystems. Much of the Ambler Road’s route is through fragile wetlands and near the sensitive spawning grounds of sheefish and other species.

Beginning in late summer, in a handful of watersheds in western and interior Alaska, sheefish migrate to their spawning grounds in the upper stretches of rivers. Fish are around 10 years old before they spawn, an event that occurs in late September and early October. Post spawning, some sheefish live off their reserves for most of the winter, while others travel back to the coast and feed on herring and smelt. They can live more than 30 years and weigh up to 60 pounds.

Freshwater flyfishing guide Greg Halbach of Remote Waters guides anglers targeting sheefish on the Kobuk. Like Fraley, his first float of the river was a revelatory experience. He went into that trip to see if it could be viable for him to lead small flyfishing groups after sheefish. Halbach was preoccupied with the fishing part of the journey, but the wild beauty of floating along the southern flanks of the Brooks Range left a deep impression on him.

“I’ll never forget my first sighting of a sheefish,” he says. “I was standing in my inflatable kayak, using it like a stand-up paddle board, and I saw this huge shape in the water. My mind was blown. It was a mad scramble to get a fly out there. After that, I was hooked. It still kind of blows my mind when a client hooks up a huge anadromous fish that looks an awful lot like a tarpon from a river way up in the Arctic.”

Halbach is not just worried about how the Ambler Road would affect the sheefish population.

“A big part of what I offer on my trips is providing my clients with an opportunity to immerse themselves in a landscape that is wild and remote in a way that very few places anywhere else still are,” says Halbach. “A float down the Kobuk River that included floating under a bridge and listening to the hammering of engine brakes from tractor-trailers would be a radically different recreational experience.”

Tom Phillips first floated the Kobuk River in 1996 or 1997. “It is a trip of a lifetime, and I’ve had the luxury of doing it every year since,” Phillips says.

He nearly died on that first trip, though. Just below the put-in at Walker Lake, the Kobuk has its most difficult rapids. It’s vital, Phillips said, to scout it before running it. Some years, particularly in August if it’s been raining hard, it’s not navigable due to sweepers—a fallen tree or trees in the river, which can take out a paddler and, sometimes, pin them underwater. Phillip’s trip partner was in a rush to run the rapids without scouting. A sweeper took Phillips out and he got thrashed and injured on a boulder.

The rest of the trip was miserable, but at one camp, Phillips inadvertently got into a school of sheefish. He and his partner caught between fifteen or twenty before they finally got a small one — around 14 pounds — that they kept for dinner.

“They’re really, really big fish,” he says. “They can fight. You can catch them on anything shiny. A small one is 15 to 20 pounds. I went back with a different partner the following year and we took our time. It was a really great trip. I’ve done it every year since and caught sheefish every time.”

Phillips recognizes that some locals want the Ambler Road, but he agrees with the many who don’t. “It’s certainly going to mess up the area,” he says.

According to the folks who’ve experienced it, there’s truly no place like the Kobuk River, and there’s no fish like the river’s sheefish. It remains an exceptional backcountry angling opportunity because of its isolation.

Kobuk sheefish are one more reason in a long list of why the Ambler Road is a bad idea.

Sign the petition to defend these resources and unrivaled backcountry fishing experiences.

Q&A: Bjorn Dihle

Meet the newest member of the Hunters & Anglers for the Brooks Range team, Bjorn Dihle.

As an outdoor writer and guide based in Juneau, Bjorn is lending us his considerable talent to help tell the important personal stories of what’s at stake for hunters and anglers in the Brooks Range as the proposed Ambler Road is considered. He has taken a dozen trips to the Brooks to hunt, hike, ski, paddle, fish, and test himself in the unforgiving Arctic.

Bjorn has also spoken to a range of Alaskans and other stakeholders about what the Brooks Range means to them and how they would be impacted by the Ambler Road. He’ll be sharing their stories right here on our website.

But first, here’s his own story.

Share one particular memory of the Brooks Range that stands out to you.

On my first trip, I nearly stepped on a grizzly while going through thick brush. The bear proceeded to bluff-charge and nearly made contact a few times. The night before, a blizzard had rolled in. When there was a lull in the storm, I unzipped my tent and was surprised to find a large herd of Dall sheep bedded nearby. 

A few months later, I returned to hunt caribou. It was during the rut, and it was blustery. One night, the weather calmed, and I woke to grunts and the sound of caribou digging through the snow for lichens. I’m not sure how many there were – probably anywhere from a few dozen to 50 or 60. They were all around the tent. I shone my headlamp out and could see their shadowy forms. The sky was full of stars and northern lights and mountains glowed. The next day, I shot a young bull. 

After those first two trips, the Brooks Range had full hold of me. 

If you could come back, what would you love to do there next?

My priorities have changed a lot now that I have a family. These days, I do almost all my hunting in Southeast Alaska where we live. I can’t take off and go wander for a month or two like I used to. I dream pretty constantly of all sorts of trips all over the Brooks Range, though. I hope to get back there with my sons when they are older. I will say that you can’t really go wrong making a trip anywhere in the Brooks Range. There’s pretty much nothing but dream trips up there.

Think of your first trip to the Brooks – what was different than you expected?

The thing that really blew me away about the Brooks Range was how wild and cool the country and wildlife are. My first time up there, I was 21 and a little cocky. I thought that the Brooks Range wouldn’t hold up to all the other wild places I’d hunted and explored across Alaska. I was completely wrong. My first trips to the Brooks Range were life changing. 

What is most special about this place? How would you describe it to someone who has never been there?

The Brooks Range is unparalleled for the opportunities it provides to hunt, fish, and wander the wildest country left in North America. For outdoors folks, the Brooks Range is the dream.

Share at least one piece of essential gear you’d recommend packing or advice you’d share with someone going to the Brooks for the first time.

For August and September, one of the biggest issues you’ll face is foot care, because the Brooks Range can be exceptionally wet, and you frequently have to wade creeks or even rivers. It can dump snow in any month. Some locals hike in hip-boots. Some people like something like Wiggy’s thigh-high waders. I have covered hundreds of miles in the Brooks Range in sandals and neoprene socks – I also bring lightweight boots for more technical terrain. That system works for me, but I’d recommend that you spend some time considering your “foot system” and ensure that it’s appropriate to the scope of the adventure you’re planning. 

How do you think your experience in the Brooks would change if the Ambler Road was built? What do hunters and anglers stand to lose?

It would be a huge change and all for the negative as far as I can see. The last thing we need in America are diminished opportunities to hunt, fish, and explore. 

What aspect of the proposed Ambler Road project concerns you most?

I’m concerned about the threat to both the Alaska lifestyle and America’s outdoor heritage. There really is no wilder stretch of country left in North America. It could lead to a real loss for future generations.

Also, the Ambler Road would be a publicly funded industrial corridor to foreign-owned mines. The idea of my home state being exploited and contaminated as a resource colony for China or some other country does not sit well with me.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve heard about the project?

I’ve heard a few hunters talk about how they are looking forward to increased road access to the Brooks Range. The Ambler Road is not proposed as a public access corridor – it’s hard to believe that it’ll remain closed to the public for long, but that’s what is on the table right now.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how Alaska needs the project for our flagging economy, but the economic viability of these mines is uncertain. There’s no guarantee that using public money to build a road to foreign-owned mines would do anything other than hurt us. Our outdoor recreation industry has a $2.6-billion annual impact, and given how many Alaskans and visitors to Alaska hunt, fish, and love the outdoors – not to mention make their livings from it – it’s something our state’s decision-makers should value more.

I’ve heard people talk about how we need to generate our own minerals rather than use other nations’ resources, too. But most of these mining companies are based in other countries and plan to have ore shipped to Asia to be refined, so I’m not sure how that equates to mineral independence. Alaska only receives, according to a recent report, about 2.3% of the value of the minerals exported. Overall, projects like this are a net loss for Alaska.

What questions do you have about the project yourself?

I’ve chatted with people with a stake in the mining industry in that area. We’ve talked a lot about risk versus reward. I think the main “reward” that’s been pointed out to me is that it could be an economic opportunity for locals living in the western Arctic. Many of those locals have made clear they don’t want the Ambler Road. Some say they have recurring nightmares about it. 

So, I guess the question that keeps coming back to me is who would this project really benefit? And whatever the answer to that is, it’s a whole lot fewer people than it would hurt.

Ice Fishing for Arctic Sheefish

[Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Northwest Alaska’s sheefish and how the proposed Ambler Road might affect their population.]

Right now, in northwest Alaska, hardy anglers are prowling the sea ice in search of sheefish. Weighing up to 60 pounds, with some fish measuring more than 50 inches, sheefish are the largest species of whitefish and, according to MeatEater, the “greatest sportfish you’ve never heard of.”

The Iñupiat call them sii, but another name for them is inconnu, which means an unknown person or thing. Among anglers, sheefish are commonly referred to as the “tarpon of the north.”

They can be found in just a handful of watersheds in Alaska, Canada, and Asia. In Alaska, sheefish are known to spawn from the Yukon River to the Kobuk River in the southern Brooks Range. Outside of locals and a handful of diehard anglers, few have ever caught sheefish. Even for Alaskans in much of the state, chasing sheefish amounts to a dream as wild, or even wilder, than a quest for something like a blue marlin.

A Bucket-List Fish Through the Ice

Kotzebue, a community of 3,000 mostly Iñupiat folks situated at the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Chukchi Sea, offers some of the best sheefish ice fishing opportunities. To many, Kotzebue might seem like the end of the earth and then some. For Lewis Pagel, it’s home.

Originally from the Midwest, Pagel moved to northwest Alaska in 2007 to live out his hunting and fishing dreams. He loves chasing grizzlies, musk ox, and all the other game this wild country has to offer. But when it comes to fish, Pagel’s focus rarely wavers from sheefish.

His home in Kotzebue is around 15 miles from the mouth of the Kobuk River, which, besides being the known northern limit to the range of sheefish, has the biggest of the best run in North America.

Outside his work as a chiropractor, Pagel runs an ice fishing guiding business, Arctic Fishing Adventures. Pagel offers all-inclusive guiding and do-it-yourself sheefish ice fishing packages. He is also the Alaska state chairman of Ducks Unlimited. He laughed when I asked him what gets people so excited about sheefish.

“They’re a bucket-list fish,” he says. “There’s hardly anywhere in the world to catch them. Plus, they’re a lot of fun to catch. When they hit, they rip your arm right into the ice hole. One client lost two rods in a day from having fish pull them out of her hands.”

Pagel says you can icefish for sheefish all winter but most folks fish March and April. You’re a lot less likely to freeze to death or get snuck up on by a polar bear then than you are in the long winter darkness. During winter and spring, sheefish travel in large schools chasing herring and smelt in brackish water. Some sheefish overwinter in freshwater, eating nothing and living off their body’s reserves.

In the Path of the Proposed Ambler Road

Three big rivers—the Kobuk, Noatak, and Selawik—drain into the Chukchi Sea near Kotzebue. Sometimes he’ll travel as far as 15 miles to the mouths of the Noatak and Kobuk Rivers to fish, but the fishing is often good just a few hundred yards out from town on the thick sea ice. Pagel uses a 10-inch propane ice auger to drill through it.

Pagel has caught sheefish over 50 inches long and he’s brought giant fish up to the ice that were too big to get through the 10-inch hole. Sheefish can live 20 to 30 years, and don’t spawn until later in life. They’re known to be voracious, aggressive feeders. Finding them isn’t always easy, but when Pagel does, the fishing is hot.

“It’s feast or famine fishing,” Pagel says. “When they’re biting you can catch 100 in an hour. We fish spoons. When they’re hitting, they’ll take anything shiny.”

In August and September, these sheefish will migrate to the upper reaches of the Kobuk and Selawik Rivers to spawn. Fisheries ecologist Kevin Fraley points out that sheefish are very picky, concentrated spawners. Many of their spawning areas are near the route of the proposed Ambler Industrial Road, which, if built, would be a private 211-mile corridor through the southern flanks of the Brooks Range that would be used to develop an unknown number of foreign-owned mines.

Fraley is currently working on a study funded by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to get baseline contaminants data in fish from the sections of the rivers that the Ambler Road would cross. He is concerned about potential impacts to sheefish and the overall aquatic ecosystems if the Ambler Road were to be built.

“The populations of fish in the region, such as Kobuk River chum salmon and sheefish that are incredibly important subsistence resources and also represent world-class angling opportunities, could be threatened by contamination, siltation, increased harvest, and chemical spills resulting from the industrial developments,” says Fraley. “To me, the risks to these special fish populations from the Ambler Road are not worth the supposed benefits, which would mostly be the enrichment of foreign mining companies.”

Like many locals, Lewis Pagel shares Fraley’s concerns over what the Ambler Road would mean for sheefish, other species of wildlife, and the hunting and fishing lifestyle. The potential harm to sheefish populations is one of a lot of reasons he opposes the Ambler Road. Pagel points out how most of the road would go through wetlands and why that’s a big issue for fish populations.

“It’s a huge threat,” he says. ”Wetlands are the environment’s filtration system, and in addition to hosting all the wildlife in this region, wetlands help prevent erosion of the land, keep the water and air clean, and provide food for the people and other animals of this region. Mining activities could be detrimental to the waterways near the mine sites, and the roadway itself will alter hundreds of streams and rivers. Anything that ends up in that water will make its way through the Kobuk River system and into Kotzebue Sound.”

Toward the end of my conversation with Pagel, we strayed from sheefish talk to a discussion about the incredible wild country of the Brooks Range. Pagel travels a lot, often to see what the rest of the world has to offer in terms of hunting and fishing opportunities. But nothing compares to his backyard.

“Often, I’ll go sit on a ridge and look out on the land, and I’m like damn! There isn’t another place like this,” Pagel says. “I really hope it stays this way.”

The unique and very limited opportunity to fish for sheefish – whether it be through the ice on the frozen Chukchi Sea or flyfishing during spawning season in the upper reaches of the wildest rivers that remain on Earth – is one of many reasons to oppose the Ambler Road.

Sign the petition to defend these resources and unrivaled backcountry fishing experiences.

Part two of this series will look more in depth at sheefish and flyfishing opportunities for “the tarpon of the north” on the Kobuk River.