DNR gives Graphite One winter trail permit
By Megan Gannon
The Alaska Department of Natural Resources issued a permit, allowing Graphite One to move heavy equipment from the Kougarok Road through Mosquito Pass on a temporary winter trail. But the company no longer hopes to plow the Kougarok Road to mile 28 to access this trail.
According to the permit the heavy equipment, staged at mile 28 of the Kougarok Road, would be “walked” to mile 30, and then veering off west off the unplowed road, it would be taken along Hudson Creek drainage to the Sinuk River, turning north and up the Windy Creek drainage through Mosquito Pass, climbing 1,500 feet in elevation, and down on the northern side along the east side of the Cobblestone River, crossing the river and then turning west toward the Graphite One camp. The mileage of tundra travel is estimated at 20 miles.
Graphite One had applied for a permit to create this route last month. A 36,000-pound D6 dozer and a 72,000-pound Komatsu 290 excavator were among the heavy vehicles the company said it planned to transport.
“Because Graphite One will be using heavy machinery during a short period in the winter months while there is adequate snow coverage and frozen tundra the risk to the vegetative mat will not be minimal,” DNR said in issuing the permit. “The mining section will coordinate with Graphite One on current snow conditions, prior to travel in order to evaluate the potential impacts to state land and resources.”
DNR added that the activity is “unlikely to have a significant or long-lasting impact on state land or resources provided Graphite One operates the requested activities in a responsible manner.” It also said that no alternatives to the proposed trail were considered.
The company had initially said in its application that it would work with Alaska’s Department of Public Transportation & Public Facilities to plow the Kougarok to mile 28. The road is currently only maintained to about mile 13 as the road is only maintained for vehicle travel from May through October. A DOT&PF spokesperson at the time said they would not be doing any extra work for Graphite One, and there could be an issue with a private company plowing a public road itself. Now that it has the permit, Graphite One says it has no plans to plow the Kougarok Road.
“We are continuing to move forward with the mobilization work,” Mike Schaffner, Graphite One’s senior vice president of mining, told the Nugget in an email last week. “We will not be plowing the Kougarok Road. We will only be moving the equipment which has already been staged. We have completed our trail survey which showed very good snow conditions and informed DNR of our results. We have a team out mapping the trail and an avalanche specialist checking the conditions to make sure our route is safe to travel. Once this work is complete, we will wait for a break in the weather and move the equipment to site which should only take a couple of days.”
Graphite One, based in Vancouver, has done exploration work on a graphite deposit that is thought to be the largest in the United States. The company could be years away from applying for permits to begin mining operations, but it has been ramping up its exploration efforts in recent years. The plan to mine includes eventually building an industrial access road to the site. The winter trail follows the general route of that road.
Members of the public raised concerns about the winter trail’s impact on the environment in comments submitted to DNR. The comments were part of the public permit document, but did not reveal the identity of the commentators. Some comments voiced general opposition to the project. One said that the Alaska Native tribes that depend on resources and environments near the graphite deposit “have not been adequately considered in the decision to permit aspects of the Graphite One Mine to go forward.” The decision document lists under land information the regional Native Corporation Bering Straits Native Corp, the village corporation Sitnasuak and erroneously classified Kawerak Inc, a tribal consortium, as a federally recognized tribe, omitting the closest tribal land owners of Teller, Mary’s Igloo and Brevig Mission.
Another comment states that “Graphite One has already demonstrated a lack of appreciation about the impact of their activities on this unique area and that this will continue if they establish a winter trail.”
Another wrote that Mosquito Pass is “undisturbed by the myriad of tracks and ruts that crisscross the tundra pretty much everywhere else near the Nome road system.” That commenter was concerned “that the heavy equipment Graphite One proposes to haul through this pristine environment will damage the fragile tundra vegetation and leave lasting scars of their passage.”
The commentator went on to write that the corridor through the Kigluaik Mountains over Mosquito Pass is “located in the heart of an area long ago designated by the BLM as a Special Recreational Management Area, for a good reason.”
“Mosquito Pass and the Cobblestone valley is a world-class spectacular setting that is treasured by many Nome and Alaska residents who value its untouched splendor and use it year-round for a wide variety of recreational activities. Plans for an industrial haul road through this beloved, pristine environment are deeply disturbing.”
In its responses, DNR confirmed it does not have a standard for snow conditions to allow winter cross country travel with equipment on the tundra outside of the North Slope, where ice road construction is more common. “Tundra travel or off-road travel within the North Slope's foothills requires at least 9 inches of snow and ground temperatures of -5 degrees C to be open to unrestricted vehicle use to those with a DNR permit,” the DNR response read.
As the National Weather Service has stopped taking its own observations of snow depth in Nome, the only ballpark snow depth measurement for the region comes from volunteers with the local radio station KNOM, which volunteered to measure snow depth and precipitation after the Nome National Weather Service station stopped taking those data and was eventually shut down. The radio station measured 32 inches of snow in Nome as of March 15, 2023. But that measurement does not account for the variability of snow depth across the Seward Peninsula, which has complex terrain and wind patterns.
Lorraine Henry, DNR’s director of communications, said that ground frost depth and snow cover are the two biggest considerations for cross-country winter travel. She said that this type of travel is typically allowed in the spring when maximum ground frost depth has been achieved. Henry added that 12 inches of ground frost and a minimum of six inches of snow and ice cover would be “reasonably adequate to avoid damage” to the tundra vegetation and soils, considering the equipment and supplies Graphite One plans to transport.
“At this time it is unlikely that any of the route has less than six inches of snow/ice,” Henry said. She noted that a requirement of the permit is that the vegetative mat must not be damaged during travel, and if trail conditions prevent compliance with the permit, travel is not authorized.