Emergency freight reaches North Slope before tundra season “closes”: Community, Industry and BLM team Up to Meet Residents’ Needs

Eric Tausch

The last Alaska West Express freight trucks for the season crossed BLM’s tundra-covered northern Alaska landscape April 28 headed home after pandemic-related closures caused delays in getting desperately needed goods and equipment to North Slope residents.

“It feels good to know lots of important freight like fuel, equipment, fiber optic cable, and fire trucks was moved on these rights of way,” said Arctic District Office Manager Shelly Jones, whose team is responsible for managing and permitting travel across more than 23 million acres in some of the most isolated and precarious BLM-managed public land in the nation. “These routes are very important to this region, but we’re getting ready to ‘close the tundra” until next winter because the snow is starting to get too punchy to travel.”

Earlier in April, BLM Alaska waived a $8,370 right-of-way fee for Ukpeaġvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) to deliver emergency freight to the village of Utqiaġvik following COVID-19 transportation closures. UIC, the Native Village Corporation for Utqiaġvik, donated two tundra travel vehicles with toboggan sleds, as well as the necessary fuel, safety equipment, and trained personnel for two round trips to the state’s northernmost village.

Firetruck on trailer pulled by tractors
A fire truck destined for the Barrow Airport is towed by a Pisten Bully pulling a sleigh across the North Slope Borough's Community Winter Access Trail last month. Photo courtesy of Alaska West Express.

The UIC waiver permitted vehicle caravans coordinated by the North Slope Borough (NSB) to deliver much-needed groceries, NSB Search and Rescue vehicles and equipment, and other necessities across 173 miles of the NSB’s Community Winter Access Trail that traverses BLM-managed public tundra. Air freight and other alternatives were cost prohibitive on short notice for North Slope communities.

“The work that we did this season added newer and more housing to the community of Atqasuk and will help the community of Utqiaġvik repair and replace fuel storage for the village,” said Tyler Bones, director of Health, Safety, Security, and Environmental programs for Alaska West Express, part of the Lynden family of companies. “The fire truck we delivered to the Barrow Airport will protect all flights coming and going for years to come.  

“This was definitely a team effort, and without Lonnie Bryant and Donna Wixon in the BLM’s Arctic District Office we would not be successful,” Bones said.