Chugach Alaska seeks sustainable growth
To celebrate heritage, create intergenerational prosperity Alaska Native Claims – October 12, 2021
Last updated 1/6/2022 at 2:17pm
Covering a roughly 450-mile stretch of postcard-worthy Gulf of Alaska coastline where glacier-carved fjords and bays teeming with fish, birds, and marine mammals are framed by dense forests of hemlock and spruce and majestic mountain vistas, the Chugach Alaska Corp. region epitomizes Alaska beauty.
In addition to the immediately apparent abundance of subsistence, fishing, tourism, and timber resources, this 10-million-acre picturesque area along Alaska's southern coast is also rich in minerals. Copper, zinc, chromium, titanium, platinum, and gold are among the many metals that have been discovered and historically mined in this resource-rich area extending from Icy Bay to the tip of the Kenai Peninsula near Homer.
For Chugach Alaska, one of the 12 land-holding Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) regional corporations, finding a balance between developing these minerals and other resources in the area and conservation is "driven by purpose, guided by tradition."
"A hallmark of the Chugach philosophy is our consideration for how the decisions we make today will impact the future health of the corporation," Chugach Alaska Executive Vice President of Lands and Resource Development Josie Hickel told Data Mine North. "With every decision we make, we ask ourselves whether we're creating a more valuable, sustainable Chugach for shareholders not only today, but for their children and grandchildren tomorrow."
To gain an understanding of what role mining might play in this decision-making process, Chugach is investigating the mineral potential in areas of historical mining on lands it owns in the region.
National forests, parks complicate
Under ANCSA, Chugach is entitled to roughly 378,000 acres of full fee estate and 550,000 acres of subsurface estate to be managed for its shareholders.
As stewards of this beautiful and resource-rich region of Southcentral Alaska, Chugach seeks a balance between safeguarding the heritage of its roughly 2,850 shareholders, conserving the natural beauty and resources, while also ensuring economic opportunities for the people who have called this region home for thousands of years
With federal conservation areas such as the Chugach National Forest and Kenai Fjords National Park covering enormous swaths of this picturesque region, however, realizing the economic opportunities that could come from developing mineral and other resources on its lands, which sometimes lie within these national parks and forests, can be complicated.
"As many are aware, the Chugach National Forest is approximately 98% inventoried roadless from the 2000-era Clinton Roadless Rule, which frustrates our rights for access to resources where we own the subsurface," Hickel told Mining News.
Despite the frustration, Chugach Alaska seeks to work with federal land managers within the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the National Parks Service, and the Department of Agriculture, which is over the U.S. Forest Service.
"If we can find some symbiosis of an overall landscape management strategy that benefits our shareholders, we certainly consider that," the Chugach Alaska land and resource executive said. "Because we have a lot of the split estate concerns in areas of interest to the agencies, and also areas within designated Wilderness, or Wilderness Study areas, we are working with the departments of Interior and Agriculture for possible land exchanges that might alleviate some of these management concerns."
Landholdings in the Chugach region were further complicated following the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council acquired significant surface estates from village corporations in the Chugach region, creating split estates on lands that Chugach Alaska owns the subsurface rights.
One such split estate was Port Gravina, where the regional corporation wanted to develop a granite quarry.
"Though it was quite an effort, in the end, we were able to assert our rights as the owner of the dominant subsurface estate and our granite products will be on the market soon," Hickel said.
Granite quarry, local jobs
Port Gravina is located on Prince William Sound between the communities of Valdez and Cordova. Granite mined from this Southcentral Alaska locale could provide materials for infrastructure, development, construction, and repair projects throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
"A longer local development and shipping season could aid in the restoration of projects such as shoreline restoration and storm erosion control in Western Alaska, where some villages are at risk," said Hickel. "High-quality armor stone and rip-rap, which would be available through the Port Gravina project, are ideally suited for these types of prevention and restoration projects."
For Chugach shareholders that live in the area, the new granite business means jobs – both at the quarry and the other jobs spurred by the economic opportunities it generates.
"These jobs are greatly needed in local villages where economic development and job opportunities are limited," Hickel said. "Local hire from communities closest to the project area will be utilized to the maximum extent possible."
Projects such as this lie at the heart of Chugach's balanced strategy.
"Chugach has a responsibility to shareholders to protect our heritage and cultural practices, provide stewardship over our lands and resources and to explore economic opportunities that benefit our region and shareholders," Hickel said. "This responsibility has led us to pursue a number of opportunities on our lands, the latest being the Prince William Sound Granite Quarry."
Investigating the mineral potential
Beyond mining granite that can be used for coastal infrastructure projects near Alaska's enormous coastline, Chugach Alaska has recently resumed exploration of the other mineral resources known to exist on its lands.
While there are currently no operating mines in the Chugach region, several small underground operations produced copper, silver and other metals from high-grade ore mined from volcanogenic massive sulfide (VMS) deposits near the village of Tatitlek on Prince William Sound in the early 1900s.
While these historic mines and other prospects identified on Chugach-owned lands show promise, little exploration has been carried out in the area since the 1970s, at least until recent work by the regional corporation.
"In 2014 we did a phase one exploration program for Metallic Minerals on our lands in the VMS belt in the northeastern Prince William Sound, near Tatitlek," said Chugach Alaska Senior Manager of Lands David Phillips. "There has been past production of copper in the area from Ellamar, Threeman, Billy Goat, Reynolds Alaska and Schlosser mines."
While the village corporations in the Chugach region typically own surface estate and the regional corporation owns the subsurface mineral rights, the Tatitlek Village Corp. owns both the surface and subsurface rights to lands covering some of the VMS targets in this area.
Working with Alaska Earth Sciences, an Anchorage-based geological consulting firm, Chugach investigated an area on the southeast side of the Kenai Peninsula known to host high-grade gold.
"In 2019, we began a program in the Nuka Bay District of the Kenai Fjords," said Phillips. "Chugach owns approximately 78,000 acres of subsurface estate within the boundaries of the Kenai Fjords National Park."
Chugach's 2019 exploration turned up some intriguing targets for follow-up exploration.
"We have only had a single field season in each location, but there seems to be enough interest to put together a more focused effort in certain areas," said Phillips.
The land manager said Chugach Alaska plans to explore mineral prospects that Chugach Alaska owns on Knight and Latouche Islands in Prince William Sound.
Based on work carried out in the 1970s, it is estimated that the Copper Bullion prospect on Chugach lands on Knight Island hosts 1.8 million metric tons of resource averaging 0.57% copper, 42.4% iron, 0.15 grams per metric ton gold, and 3.16 g/t silver.
Latouche Island, on the other hand, hosts a major copper-producing mine from early in the 20th century. From 1908 to 1930, the Beatson Mine on Latouche Island produced roughly 182.6 million pounds of copper and 1.47 million oz of silver from 5.43 million metric tons of ore averaging 1.65% copper and 8.72 g/t silver.
Chugach Alaska also plans to explore lands it owns within and adjacent to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which hosts the historic Kennecott copper mine.
Driven by purpose, guided by tradition
Chugach Alaska decisions are "driven by purpose, guided by tradition." As such, the ANCSA regional corporation wants to have a good understanding of the mineral prospects on its lands before bringing in mining or mineral exploration companies as partners to further evaluate and advance mineral projects within its region.
For Chugach and its shareholders, it is important that any mineral exploration and mining in the region, whether on ANCSA or public land, minimize the impacts on the environmental and aesthetic values this iconic part of Alaska is known for.
"Chugach places utmost value on habitat protection given the importance of subsistence to our shareholders and the reliance of regional communities on healthy water and land in Prince William Sound," said Hickel. "We make every effort to maintain a minimal footprint and avoid impacts to the natural habitat, and we would ask that other companies uphold this same respect toward our region."
Another thing that is important to Chugach is that any development in the region provides jobs for its shareholders that live there.
"It is fitting that the resources developed in the Chugach region benefit the Chugach people," the regional corporation penned on its website.
In addition to direct jobs at a mineral exploration camp or mine, the people of the region offer much in the way of logistical and other support.
"Many of the region's village corporations, tribes and our shareholders have businesses that provide marine transportation, cargo, and logistical services," Hickel said.
In addition, Chugach Alaska subsidiaries are ready to support development within the region.
Chugach Alaska Services, an Alaska Native-focused staffing service, is particularly well suited for supporting mineral exploration in the region and across the state.
"While our focus is Alaska's oil and gas industry, we have the resources and the talent to provide professional and highly qualified individuals to any industry of Alaska's economy," CAS wrote.
By providing economic opportunities for Chugach Alaska shareholders, conscientious mineral exploration and mining may have a role to play in Chugach Alaska's strategy to create "a more valuable, sustainable Chugach for shareholders not only today, but for their children and grandchildren tomorrow."
CORRECTION: The Copper Bullion prospect o hosts 1.8 million metric tons of resource averaging 0.57% copper, 42.4% iron, 0.15 grams per metric ton gold, and 3.16 g/t silver.