12/30/2011 01:30 EST | Updated 02/29/2012 05:12 EST

NovaGold CEO sees potential in Ambler region as he prepares to head spinoff

When Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse steps aside from the top job at NovaGold Resources next year to lead NovaCopper, he leaves an exploration company just steps away from becoming a producer.

But he says it's the finding of deposits that can be developed, not the building of mines, that he loves.

And Van Nieuwenhuyse believes the Ambler region in Alaska —where NovaCopper will hold a substantial land position — has the potential to become a whole new mining district.

"The focus is getting the right people to do the right jobs," he said about his decision to leave NovaGold.

"I explained that I really wanted to stay focused on exploration and I was really excited about the Ambler project."

NovaGold (TSX:NG) shareholders still need to approve the plan that will see the Ambler assets spun off into a separate company at a meeting expected in February and a financing will need to be completed, but Van Nieuwenhuyse is already hard at work on his plans for NovaCopper.

In January, he will head out to visit some of the villages in the region to discuss aspects of the company's plans.

With a resource estimate already complete for one deposit, work is underway for a second and the company is expected to have four drill rigs at work in the Ambler district in 2012.

The region has also started to attract interest from other companies, but NovaCopper is the major player.

Junior resource company Andover Ventures Inc. (TSXV:AOX) more than doubled its land position at its Sun property in the Ambler mining district in November to around 15,000 hectares.

"There are a few other players in the region and we're happy to have neighbours," Van Nieuwenhuyse said.

One of the key advantages for NovaCopper is the company's deal with NANA Regional Corp. Inc., an Alaska Native corporation, that consolidated the company's and NANA's land holdings into a 180,000-hectare land package and provided a framework for the exploration and development of the region.

The deal gave NovaCopper a key partner in the region as well as added a potential project to NovaCopper's inventory to explore and further develop with the Bornite property, where the company has already scored some promising drill results.

"It is critical to get local support and the best way to get local support is if the local entities are directly involved in the process," Van Nieuwenhuyse said.

But the first project in the company's development pipeline right now is the Arctic project, a copper and zinc deposit for which the company has already completed a resource estimate.

"It is one of a series of deposits that have been identified historically or we've identified through our work along a 70-kilometre long belt of rocks."

Van Nieuwenhuyse says for now the company has plenty on its plate with the Arctic project and the Bornite property, but that's not to say he's not open to the right deal.

"We'll certainly always have our eyes out for good opportunities," he said.

Van Nieuwenhuyse turns over the keys to NovaGold at an important time for the company.

Its partner on the Donlin project in Alaska, Barrick Gold, is on the verge of making a decision on whether or not to go ahead with construction. NovaGold is also looking for a buyer for its stake in the Galore Creek project which is shared with Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B).

But Van Nieuwenhuyse said Gregory Lang, who takes over as president of NovaGold in January is the right person for the job.

Lang, most recently president of Barrick Gold's (TSX:ABX) North American subsidiary, was responsible for the gold miner's operations in the United States, Canada and the Dominican Republic, including its 50 per cent stake in the Donlin project.