By Chris Wood
Some bad ideas rise above others: New Coke, Diet Water, the Red Sox trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees. One of the worst ideas of all time? The proposal to build a mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
Scientists during the during the Obama Administration said the mine was too risky. Then, the Trump Administration breathed new life into it. This November, the voters of Alaska will decide whether the state should have the authority to say no to a mine, such as Pebble, that can cause irreparable harm to salmon streams.
Seven rivers drain into Bristol Bay. One is the Nushagak—every year one of the top chinook salmon producing streams in the world. Another is the Kvichak; it supplies nearly half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon. A Canadian mining company, the Pebble Partnership, has proposed building a massive gold and copper mine in the headwaters of these two rivers.
Bristol Bay is the world’s most important salmon fishery. Every year, it sustains a $1.5 billion salmon industry that provides more than 14,000 family wage jobs. The village of Igiugig, population 70, sits at the outflow of the Kvichak. Last week, Brian Kraft, the owner of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, and I, took his daughter, Dakota, to school in Igiugig by boat. Students are more likely to arrive by ATV and boat to school than by car. “Stop Pebble Mine” stickers adorned several ATVs, and more than one student was wearing a “Wrong Mine, Wrong Place” shirt.
The Alaska economy is highly dependent on the development of its natural resources. That is what makes the widespread opposition to the Pebble Mine from communities such as Igiugig so unique. Native villages and local communities in the Bristol Bay region oppose the Pebble Mine by more than 75 percent. Their opposition stems from the fact that salmon have provided them sustenance, and cultural and natural touch-points for a millennia.
The Bristol Bay landscape is about the size of West Virginia, with only 8,000 people living in it. The Pebble Partnership proposes to industrialize this wilderness quality landscape with roads, pipelines, a power plant, stream crossings, and other associated development to process and move the ore from the earth to the market. Their preliminary mine plan called for filling more than 4,000 acres of wetlands. It also calls for a tailings pond more than one-third of a mile deep and a mile long to forever store the toxic tailings produced by the mine. The landscape is seismically active. Surface water and groundwater mingle freely in the area. The likelihood of the mine’s toxic tailings contaminating the Kvichak and the Nushagak is high.
On the boat ride back to his lodge, I asked Brian why native villages such as Igiugig are so opposed to the mine. He said, “In the lower 48, we have spent more than $15 billion to try to recover imperiled salmon and steelhead. Most of those fish remain on the brink of extinction. The cost of keeping Bristol Bay’s salmon runs intact is a lot less expensive than trying to recover them after we destroy their habitat.”
It is David versus Goliath. Opponents of the ballot measure have raised $9 million to the $1.2 million raised by those in support. This year 62 million sockeye returned to their natal waters in Bristol Bay to spawn—the highest number of fish to return since 1893. In a few weeks, the voters of Alaska will decide if that represents a high-water mark against a future of decline and loss or a new normal because the state had the good sense, and the authority, to say “no” to the Pebble Mine.
Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. He lives in Washington, D.C., and works at TU’s Arlington, Va., headquarters. This message was paid for by Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program, Anchorage, AK, Nelli Williams, Alaska Director. The top three donors to Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Fish Habitat Initiative Fund are Dan Michels, Wasilla, AK; Alaska Fishing Unlimited, Port Alsworth, AK; and Josh Grieser, Anchorage, AK.