Ahtna region lies at Alaskan crossroads
Seeks traditional, economic balance at Alaska highway hub Alaska Native Claims – October 12, 2021
Last updated 1/6/2022 at 2:16pm
As an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional corporation that is balancing traditional values with economic opportunities across a 26-million-acre picturesque and resource-rich traditional region at the epicenter of Alaska's highway system, Ahtna Inc. lies at a literal and figurative crossroads.
Bordered by the majestic Alaska Range to the north, the equally beautiful Chugach Mountains to the south, the Canadian border to the east, and the Denali National Park to the west, the Ahtna region is renowned for its natural beauty, Copper River salmon, abundant wildlife, and one of the richest lodes of copper ever mined on Earth.
This juxtaposition of natural resource wealth and beauty at the very crossroads of Alaska's highway system makes the Ahtna region a popular outdoor recreation destination for Alaska's urban-dwellers.
This creates unique opportunities and challenges for Ahtna as it seeks to balance the development of natural resources on 1.6 million acres for the prosperity of its current shareholders while preserving traditional resources for future generations in an accessible area famed for its copper, salmon, and beauty.
"As a result of this constant influx of outside parties, our people now have to compete more and more for the resources (game, fish, and plant life) located on traditional Ahtna lands," said the ANCSA corporation.
Ensuring that there are plenty of plants, fish, and wildlife to support the customary and traditional way of life for its people is an important facet of Ahtna's resource management strategy.
"Managing these plants and animals is more than just keeping them intact – it is about keeping them around in large enough qualities so that the shareholders can utilize them," Ahtna Vice President of Land & Resources Joe Bovee told Data Mine North. "Without these plants and animals, or without a large enough population of them, the Ahtna shareholders would not be able to continue to pass down their traditional ways of life."
The highways that bring in visitors from Alaska's largest urban centers also mean that the rich mineral resources in the Ahtna region are close to surface infrastructure, a major advantage compared to the more rural parts of the state.
"The infrastructure in the Ahtna region is both a benefit and a burden," Bovee said. "Land and resource management has to incorporate human resource management as much, or more at times, than the natural resource management side."
To enhance human and natural resource management opportunities, seven of the eight Ahtna ANCSA Village corporations merged with the regional corporation in 1980.
The consolidated Ahtna lands department would consider an arrangement that allows a reputable mining company or a consortium the exclusive right to carry out reconnaissance exploration across all Ahtna lands, with the option to select specific tracts of land for lease and detailed exploration and development.
Keeping in mind that maintaining cultural and traditional land uses is a No. 1 priority, Bovee said, "Ahtna is supportive of responsible resource development, including mineral extraction."
Home to the fantastically rich deposits of copper that provided ore for the historic Kennecott Mine, the Ahtna region covers an area roughly the size of Ohio that many consider to be among the richest on Earth when it comes to mineral potential.
"In the previous 100-years the Ahtna region has produced over six million tons of copper; one million ounces of gold; and nine million ounces of silver," Bovee said.
Much of this metal came from Kennecott, one of the richest and highest-grade lodes of copper ever to be mined.
According to historical production records, the Kennecott Mine produced roughly 1.18 billion pounds of copper from 4.6 million tons of ore mined from three deposits – Bonanza, Jumbo, and Mother Lode.
This means that the average grade of the ore mined at Kennecott over three decades starting in 1909 averaged 13% copper, or more than a pound of copper for every eight pounds of ore mined.
This incredibly high-grade store of copper attracted J. P. Morgan and Simon Guggenheim, among the wealthiest businessmen of the day, and supported the construction of a 196-mile railway and new steamship company to transport ore from the remote Alaska operation to world markets.
Kennecott operations reported more than $200 million in gross revenues from the copper, silver, and gold mined there and a net profit greater than $100 million. At today's prices, the copper alone would be worth more than $4.2 billion.
While Kennecott Mine is now a national landmark within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the world-class copper deposits mined there demonstrate the rich mineral potential of the Ahtna region.
In addition to copper, gold, and silver, the Ahtna region is one of the most prospective areas of Alaska for nickel and platinum group elements.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has identified 55 mineral occurrences on or near Ahtna lands.
The most extensive assessment of this potential was a reconnaissance program carried out in the 1970s. While cursory, this exploration identified six main mineral belts running across the Ahtna region.
"Ahtna believes its lands should be highly rated on the global scale of exploration opportunities," the ANCSA corporation said.
Partially due to the long process of transferring the full 1.77 million acres of lands Ahtna has selected under ANCSA, much of this world-class mineral potential remains vastly underexplored.
"In short, there are many large blocks of Ahtna lands across entire mineral belts waiting to be explored," said Bovee.
And these mineral belts cut across the hub of Alaska's road system, with the spokes extending to Anchorage, Fairbanks, Delta Junction, Tok, and Valdez.
In addition to being at the center of Alaska's highway system, the Ahtna region extends within a few miles of the deep-water port of Valdez to the south and has rail access on its western flank.
"With 800-miles of highways and secondary roads, electric transmission and distribution lines, Alaska Railroad and access to deep-water ports in the region, Ahtna lands offer great opportunities for exploration and mining companies," the Ahtna vice president of land and resources added.
Alaska's copper center
While the community of Copper Center harkens to the Kennecott Mine era, it is an apt description of the exploration potential of the entire Ahtna region, and the ANCSA corporation owns some prime real estate for discovering new lodes of copper and associated metals.
Ahtna's copper-prospective properties include holdings into the western margins of Wrangell-St. Elias, the park that now encompasses Kennecott.
Berg-MacDougall, Ahtna's closest property to Kennecott, covers roughly 7,360 acres of copper prospects about 30 miles northwest of the historic mine.
At least two copper-rich skarn occurrences – Copper Queen and Midas – have been identified on this block of Ahtna-owned property within the boundaries of Wrangell-St. Elias.
The skarn mineralization at Copper Queen, also known as Berg-MacDougall, was explored with roughly 485 feet of underground workings. According to a 1976 report, the deposit shows iron and copper staining over a 100-foot area.
Additional underground workings are found at Midas, about one mile southwest of Copper Queen.
This mine produced at least small quantities of copper, gold, and silver during the Kennecott era.
A sample of skarn material collected from the lower underground workings at Midas contained 2% copper, 0.05% cobalt, 0.6 grams per metric ton gold, and 1.5 g/t silver.
A sample of Midas vein material contained 8 g/t gold, 10 g/t silver, 0.1% copper, and minor molybdenum.
To the west of Berg-MacDougall, Ahtna and Chitina Village Corp., the only independent ANCSA village corporation in the Ahtna region, own other copper-prospective lands that extend some 15 miles into the western flank of Wrangell-St. Elias.
While the belt of rocks that hosts one of the world's highest-grade past-producing copper mines is an attractive exploration target, copper prospects have been identified across the Ahtna region.
One such prospect is Golden Range, found within an emerging Alaskan copper-gold porphyry belt about 100 miles north of Kennecott.
This property in the northeastern corner of the Ahtna region, also known as Ahtell Creek, was previously explored in conjunction with Chisna, a block of adjacent state mining claims.
Reconnaissance exploration completed for Ahtna in the late 1970s identified gold and silver on its Ahtell Creek property.
Corvus Gold Inc., which owned the Chisna claims, cut a deal with Ahtna on Ahtell Creek and explored both properties about a decade ago.
This early-staged exploration found high-grade copper at Green Zone, an area named for the copper-oxide staining observed there. The best grab samples collected from Green Zone include:
• 126.5 g/t gold, 129 g/t silver and 0.4% copper.
• 28.2 g/t gold, 198 g/t silver and 5.1% copper.
• 3 g/t gold, 144 g/t silver and 17.7% copper.
Some geologists familiar with Green Zone believe the copper, gold, and silver found there could be associated with a porphyry, a type of deposit that tends to be lower grade but has the size to support a large-scale mine. More work, however, is needed to fully understand Golden Range and its potential.
Corvus' exploration also found promising copper-gold mineralization on the adjacent Chisna claims. A lack of funding for exploration companies, however, caused the company to idle its exploration at Golden Range.
"Due to global economic conditions the exploration dwindled but not before providing valuable indications, evidence and the need for more exploration in the area," said Bovee.
In 2015, Millrock Resources Inc. bought the Chisna property on state claims from Corvus.
Copper-rich mineralization similar to what has been identified at Golden Range is found in the same belt of rocks about 100 miles to the west and along Denali Highway.
Currently, PolarX Ltd. is exploring carbonate-hosted copper and copper- and gold-rich skarn deposits at Alaska Range, a project that combines two historical exploration properties known as Caribou Dome and Stellar. In addition to the high-grade deposits, PolarX' work there has identified the potential for much larger porphyry deposits on the state mining claims it owns there.
While Alaska Range is not on Ahtna-owned lands, it shows the breadth of copper mineralization in its region.
The ANCSA corporation does, however, own large blocks of land in a prospective area west of the Alaska Range project. There are several prospects in this northwest corner of the Ahtna region – Revine Creek, Caribou Pass, and Reindeer Hills – but much of the information on these targets is proprietary and would need to be obtained directly from Ahtna.
The Ahtna region also happens to be the best place in Alaska to explore for platinum group metals and nickel. This is because Wrangellia, a composite of three geological terranes, all known to host PGMs and associated metals, cuts across the Ahtna region.
The best known of these PGM-nickel prospects is Man, located on state lands in the northern Ahtna region.
Drilling at Eureka Zone, one of several prospects on the Man property, cut 81 meters averaging 0.315 g/t platinum-palladium-gold, 0.17% copper, and 0.25% nickel.
Pure Nickel, the former owner of Man, said that a review of drilling shows that all holes that cut the Eureka zone encountered similar PGM-gold-copper-nickel mineralization along a 4.5-mile trend in the central part of Alpha.
Despite the property's promise, Pure Nickel relinquished the state mining claims covering Man to save money during the recent downturn in mineral exploration markets.
The Peninsular Terrane, which extends across the southern Ahtna Region, is a subsection of the Wrangellia Composite Terrane, also known for its PGM potential.
New Age Metals Inc. recently signed an agreement with Anglo Alaska Gold Corp. to acquire full ownership of Genesis, a 10,240-acre, drill-ready platinum group metal project in the Peninsular Terrane.
Situated along the Richardson Highway about 75 highway miles north of the deep-water port city of Valdez, Genesis is an under-explored palladium-platinum-nickel-copper property with great infrastructure.
Sampling of one drill-ready reef style target at Sheep Hill on the Genesis property returned up to 2.4 g/t palladium, 2.4 g/t platinum, 0.96% nickel, and 0.58% copper.
The property also hosts a separate style of chromite mineralization containing up to 2.5 g/t palladium and 2.8 g/t platinum.
Despite this surface PGE-copper-nickel mineralization, no drilling has ever been carried out on this project that is less than two miles from a paved highway and an electric transmission line.
Ahtna owns a large block of property immediately west of the Genesis claims and along trend of the PGM-nickel-copper-chromite mineralization found there.
Attractive exploration arrangement
Ahtna is interested in working with reputable mining or mineral exploration companies to further investigate the rich mineral potential across the 1.77 million acres of land it owns or has selected for ownership.
This includes the potential for an arrangement that provides such a company the exclusive right to carry out additional reconnaissance mineral exploration across wide swaths of Ahtna lands, with the option to lease specific tracts turned up by this surface work for detailed exploration and development.
Ahtna does, however, have certain criteria that it expects to be included in any exploration and option to lease agreement on its lands.
"During all phases of the exploration and actual mining development Ahtna would expect shareholders to be afforded job opportunities at all experience levels, monetary work commitments on the project and incentives to the corporation," Bovee said.
Scholarship contributions, vocational training for shareholders, production royalties, and an option for Ahtna to participate at the feasibility stage of any mine on its lands are among the criteria the regional corporation would like to see in an agreement.
In return, a mining company that demonstrates a respect for the traditional Ahtna resources could get first choice of lands owned by the stakeholders in a very mineral-rich, road-accessible, and under-explored section of Southcentral Alaska.
"For all these reasons – technical, economic, and political – Ahtna lands are attractive exploration targets," the ANCSA regional corporation wrote.