Kobuk River Named Among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024

April 16, 2024

Kotzebue, AK – Today, the Kobuk River has been named one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® for 2024. The health of this river is currently under threat from speculative mining development, exacerbated by the effects of climate change. 

“The Kobuk River is more than a resource to local and Indigenous communities,” said Sarah Dyrdahl of American Rivers. “It is the lifeblood of local communities, the current and historical homelands of the Iñupiat, and is invaluable to the people, and all life, that depend on it.” 

The river has long supported the Iñupiat with its natural resource bounty, including intact salmon runs, abundant waterfowl, one of Alaska’s largest caribou herds (the Western Arctic Caribou Herd), and spawning grounds of the famed sheefish. The salmon runs also support a locally based commercial fishery that provides jobs and income to over a hundred families in the area. In recognition of its outstanding values, a 110-mile stretch of the Kobuk was designated a Wild River, and another 60-mile portion is included in the Kobuk Valley National Park, by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.  

The proposed Ambler Road, a huge threat to the Kobuk River, is a 211-mile private industrial mining road that would begin at the Dalton Highway and cut westward to the Kobuk River watershed. With no mines yet permitted, international mining companies are asking the State of Alaska to fund this $1.4 billion road to speculation without any guaranteed economic benefits. The Ambler Road project would weaken permafrost and require thousands of crossings over streams, rivers and wetlands, impacting the river’s water quality, migration patterns and habitat of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, as well as salmon and sheefish spawning grounds found in the Kobuk River watershed. 

“Our people are dependent on the health of the lands and waters around us,” stated Virginia Commack of Native Village of Ambler. It’s hard to overestimate the impacts the proposed road would have on Indigenous communities, wildlife, and the Kobuk River. “Once the road is developed, it’s going to affect our lifestyle — it’s going to basically kill our culture,” said Cyrus Harris of the Native village of Kotzebue. 

Andrew Greene, commercial fisher in Kotzebue Sound, stated, “We all share the Kobuk River. The salmon, sheefish, trout, grayling and everybody between Kobuk and Kotzebue shares the water. We would all be hurting if something happened at those mines.” 

The impact of this proposed road on the Kobuk River cannot be overstated. This region currently has no road connections to the rest of the world, which would make the Ambler Road the first to cut through what has remained a remote and ecologically intact region up until now. The land, fish, and wildlife in the Kobuk River watershed are as pristine as can be found in the modern world, and the Iñupiat have been excellent stewards of the river for untold generations. Developing the Ambler Road would present a food security issue in communities that do not have year-round employment and depend on the land and clean water for their food, culture, and way of life.  

“If we build this road there will be no end to mining, only an end to our culture,” said Shield Downey, former First Chief of Ivisaappaat (Ambler) Tribal Council. 

In the fall and winter of 2023, Kobuk River residents and people from across the United States submitted over 135,000 comments against the Ambler Road to the Bureau of Land Management, the lead agency in the ongoing environmental review of the Ambler Road. Folks from the Kobuk River region also attended numerous BLM hearings in isolated communities along the proposed road route. The vast majority of public testimonies highlighted the detrimental impact to subsistence and asked that the Ambler Road project be stopped.  

The final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) is expected to be published in the first half of 2024. The Draft SEIS included numerous new data that detail the massive subsistence, cultural, and ecological impacts to the Kobuk River and the people who live along it. We ask the public to take immediate action by signing the petition to the BLM, Department of Interior, and President Biden requesting that they revoke all Ambler Road permits.  

The free-flowing Kobuk River lies north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, at the northern edge of the boreal forest that flanks the Brooks Range. The 380-mile-long river originates in the heart of America’s northernmost mountain range—the Brooks Range—and flows west to the Arctic Ocean. Its headwaters cut through steep canyons of cascading rapids, then it gradually mellows as it approaches a wide delta with a rich maze of waterways. The river meanders through homelands of the Indigenous Iñupiat who continue to live from their ancestral lands as they have for millennia. The river’s abundant fish and wildlife provide spiritual, cultural, and nutritional sustenance to the Iñupiat communities. With no road connections or industrial development, the river offers a rare glimpse into an almost primordial North American landscape. 

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution. 

Other rivers in the region have been listed as endangered in recent years, including the Chilkat and Klehini Rivers (2023), the Chilkat and Stikine Rivers (2019), the rivers of Bristol Bay (2018) and the Chuitna River (2015). Issues have ranged from development to mining, with the latter being the biggest threat to the health of Alaska’s waterways.  

American Rivers reviews nominations for America’s Most Endangered Rivers® from local groups and individuals across the country, and selects rivers based on three criteria:

  1. The river’s significance to people and wildlife 
  2. The magnitude of the threat to the river and communities, especially in light of climate change and environmental injustice 
  3. A decision in the next 12 months that the public can influence 

America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2024 

#1: Rivers of New Mexico   
Threat: Loss of federal clean water protections  

#2: Big Sunflower and Yazoo Rivers (MS) 
Threat: Yazoo Pumps project threatens wetlands  

#3: Duck River (TN)  
Threat: Excessive water use   

#4: Santa Cruz River (AZ, Mexico)  
Threat: Water scarcity, climate change  

#5 Little Pee Dee River (NC, SC) 
Threat: Harmful development, highway construction  

#6 Farmington River (CT, MA) 
Threat: Hydro dam  

#7: Trinity River (CA)  
Threat: Outdated water management  

#8: Kobuk River (AK) 
Threat: Road construction, mining  

#9 Tijuana River (CA, Mexico) 
Threat: Pollution  

#10: Blackwater River (WV) 
Threat: Highway development  

About American Rivers 
American Rivers is championing a national effort to protect and restore all rivers, from remote mountain streams to urban waterways. Healthy rivers provide people and nature with clean, abundant water and natural habitat. For 50 years, American Rivers staff, supporters, and partners have shared a common belief: Life Depends on RiversSM.  www.AmericanRivers.org