Featured Photo: Ambler resident and Protect the Kobuk member Ila Griepentrog handed out sweatshirts and helped gather petition signatures during a weather delay at Bering Air in Kotzebue in Nov. 2023. (Photo courtesy of China Kantner)

Last month, American Rivers named the Kobuk River as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024. This was largely in part due to the tireless efforts from members of Protect the Kobuk, a grassroots organization of Northwest Arctic residents who oppose development of the Ambler Road.

“The thing that brings us all together … is the importance of subsistence,” China Kantner said as she talked with Northern Center shortly after news of the nomination became public.

Kantner grew up on the Kobuk River and in Kotzebue, where she currently lives. She worked closely with Ruth Iten, Susan Georgette, and numerous volunteers in neighboring villages on the nomination’s rigorous process. 

“I feel really connected to the land here,” Kantner said. “I can’t imagine it any other way.  I’d be an entirely different person.”

The Kobuk River flows more than 300 miles through hairpin turns above the Arctic Circle, from the Endicott Mountains in the Brooks Range and west to Kotzebue Sound. Indigenous communities throughout the area depend on its resources for physical, cultural, and spiritual needs, but it continues to face threats from mining, development, and climate change. 

Sheefish and salmon spawn on the Kobuk River each year and caribou cross the river twice per year as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds. According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, this is the largest spawning population of sheefish in northwestern Alaska.

These examples only scratch the surface when talking about the importance of this region, Kantner said. 

“People of the Upper Kobuk are really feeding people from Point Hope to Palmer,” she said. “It really feeds the whole state, it’s not a place we should be building a road to.”

A close up image of a large glass mason jar filled with seal oil (deep yellow and black) that is resting on a table under a paper towel. Blurred in the background are people standing and next to the jar on the table is a white tag with "seal oil" written in blue.

A mason jar filled with seal oil was one of the food options for guests in Kotzebue during the Kobuk River Foods Celebration. (Photo by China Kantner)

On April 19, the Biden administration formally acknowledged that the best path forward for the Brooks Range does not include the Ambler Road, with the Bureau of Land Management indicating a preferred “No Action Alternative” for the proposed Ambler Road’s permitting process. This has been a long and bumpy environmental review process, but the government’s Record of Decision — the final explanation of their planned actions — is expected in the near future.

Protect the Kobuk hosted a Kobuk River Foods Celebration in Kotzebue earlier this month where they ultimately ended up celebrating both the American Rivers nomination and the “No Action Alternative”. Community members gathered for a potluck featuring traditional foods and members of Native Movement also attended and screen printed T-shirts. 

Tribal members and Northwest Arctic residents can sign the No Ambler Road petition. Or, if you live outside the region, show your support by purchasing a Protect the Kobuk sweatshirt. A portion of these proceeds go to the Brooks Range Council.