A Visit to Bristol Bay
Hunters, anglers, and other conservationists continue to fight a proposed mine in Alaska's game-rich Bristol Bay region.
by J. Wyatt Abernethy, Dallas Safari Club Life Member
Flying over southwest Alaska, I’m surprised at the sparseness of the landscape. It’s not the jagged mountains and snowcapped peaks I’ve been imagining since Scott Hed of Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska invited me to come along on a fact-finding trip to King Salmon, Alaska. The tundra, pocketed with lakes and cut by rivers, looks more like Minnesota than the alpine environment I imagined.
On the flight out of Anchorage, Scott and I are joined by Ben Bulis, President of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association; Rich Hohne of Simms Fishing Products; and our host, Jerry Shultz, a Dallas Safari Club Life Member and owner of Rapids Camp Lodge. The plan is to take a look at the proposed Pebble Mine site, talk to locals, and get a sense of what the proposed site means to the people and environment of the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. Oh, and we might try to fish a little, too.
The background on this mine bears repeating. In 1988, a mining company discovered a large deposit of copper, molybdenum, and gold fifteen miles upstream from Lake Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska, approximately 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. In 2001, the claim was purchased by Northern Dynasty Minerals, which has been exploring and seeking to develop the site since then. Because of the low-grade ore quality, the most efficient way to mine the site is an open pit-style mine. The proposed pit mine at Pebble would be approximately two miles wide, 1,700 feet deep, and require two earthen dams to hold the waste rock in man-made lakes. The largest of these proposed dams would be over four miles long and 740 feet tall, bigger than the Three Gorges Dam in China.
Additional infrastructure including a port on Cook Inlet and over 100 miles of roads crossing twenty streams would have to be built to support mine operations.
Unfortunately for Northern Dynasty, this region of Alaska, known as the Bristol Bay watershed, is also home to the largest wild salmon run in the world; in fact, all five Eastern Pacific species spawn there. The Kvichak River, which drains from Lake Iliamna and is downstream from the mine site, is home to the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. Because mining is an industry with a poor environmental track record, to say that this proposed mine has been a hot topic would be an understatement. On one side, you have millions of dollars invested into an environmentally questionable project, promising thousands of jobs and money to a traditionally low-income area of Alaska. On the other, you have an environmentally sensitive area that hosts one of the last great salmon runs in the world and boasts a $1.5 billion commercial and sport fishing industry that employs 14,000 people. So which side should we choose to support?
After touching down in King Salmon, the next three days are a blur of flights, fishing, bears, too much food, and late night discussions. We spend two days fishing legendary Alaskan rivers like the Moraine and Little Ku, and what looked to me from the air like barren tundra is truly a paradise. It is clear, cold rivers and lakes teeming with fish, bears feeding and then disappearing into the brush like ghosts. You’ve heard the expression “keystone species,” but you can’t understand its true meaning until you see the connection that salmon has to southwest Alaska.
While we’re there, we visit with locals, tourists, guides, and business owners, many of whom wear “No Pebble Mine” hats or shirts. The one phrase we keep hearing is, “If people could just see it for themselves...” By the time we board our flight back home, we understand. If everyone could see this place for themselves, the Pebble Mine would have been stopped before it started.
There is no doubt--this a complicated issue, but for me it comes down to two simple choices: throw caution and common sense to the wind, or draw a line in the sand and stand up for one of the last truly wild places in the world. I’m proud to tell you that Dallas Safari Club has joined over 1,000 hunting and fishing groups and businesses from across the country including Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska, AFFTA, Simms Fishing Products, Trout Unlimited, Conservation Force, Pope and Young Club, Sturm Ruger & Co., and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in their opposition to the Pebble Mine.
In late September, a few weeks after getting back to Dallas, Anglo American--an English company and the major investor in the Pebble Limited Partnership--announced that it is withdrawing all funding from the Pebble Mine project. Even more recently, Rio Tinto, which oversees billions in pension fund investments for both California and New York and is a major investor in the Pebble Limited Partnership--was asked by the Comptrollers of each state to withdraw its $25 million dollar stake in the project.
Yes, this is exciting news in the fight to save Bristol Bay, but it brings to mind an expression from boxing: “You don’t stop punching until the other guy is on the mat.” I encourage you to get involved in the fight against Pebble Mine.