From Kokhanok on Iliamna Lake in the heart of the land of opposition to Alaska’s Pebble Mine, 58-year-old Gary Nielsen has a unique perspective on the simmering war over salmon habitat that has split the 49th state in a way not seen since the D-2 Lands battle of the late 1970s.
After D-2, after President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) into law in 1980, the big environmental battles were thought to have ended in the north.
Nielsen, the one-time mayor of a census-designated place of less than 200 and for a long time a commercial fisherman, finds his heart in one place and his head in another.
“Fishing has been good to me,” he said. “I bought my house with fishing money. I bought my land with fishing money.’
But he worries about the future of children in Bristol Bay and fears the Stand for Salmon initiative could be the death knell for his corner of Alaska.
Long ago, he said, his Alaska Native grandmother warned him, “the salmon are nice, but they aren’t always there.”
Bristol Bay, he said, needs to diversify its economy. He thinks Stand for Salmon, which puts a priority on salmon above other resources, could lock future development out of the remote Iliamna country. He sees people already moving away and fears that out-migration will only worsen.
The initiative on the ballot in November falls into the national park category. It would establish strict – opponents say onerous – standards for development activities in or near streams used by salmon and other anadromous fish.
As was the case during the Alaska Lands battle, Outside interests have taken a major role in trying to influence the outcome of this political tussle.
Businesses led by BP Exploration Alaska; Donlin Gold, which proposes a massive gold mine on the Kuskokwim River in the heart of the state, and three working mines – Red Dog, Fort Knox and Pogo have poured what “The Midnight Sun,” a left-leaning website, estimates to be $5 million into efforts to encourage voters to turn back the initiative.
The Alaska Policy Forum, an organization that has pushed for limited government and a profitable private-sector economy in the 49th state, has calculated the California-based Hewlett Foundation and the California-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars through Alaska-based environmental groups and provided immeasurable staff support to drive efforts to encourage voters to back the initiative.
“The New Venture Fund has contributed more than $400,000 directly to efforts tied to Ballot Measure 1 thus far, some in funding and some in staff time and other non-monetary forms,” Larry Barsukoff reported at the Forum. “It has also served as the conduit for sending more than $560,000 to establish Salmon State. And according to APOC disclosures, New Venture Fund is also listed as the employer for Ryan Schryver, who is directly tied to the Yes for Salmon campaign through the Alaska Center.”
Initiative backers contend their plan would not interfere with development, only protect salmon. Developers argue the opposite.
Calista, the regional Native corporation for remote Southwest Alaska, has been urging its shareholders to vote no on the initiative. The corporation has been trying for decades to mine in the Crooked Creek drainage of the Kuskokwim River to bring jobs to a part of the state with little in the way of a private-sector economy.
“Calista has been involved with the proposed Donlin Gold Project site for over the last 45 years,” the corporation says on its website. “Calista and leaders from the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta have worked toward and supported the effort to mine gold from the area. Our early leaders successfully fought for the right to select the land (from the federal government) because of its rich mineral deposit.”
Crooked Creek is a salmon stream about 280 miles northwest of Anchorage, upriver from Bethel on the Kusko. Mining in the watershed would eliminate about 4 miles of one tributary stream and part of another, according to the project’s environmental impact statement.
Under existing law, Donlin Gold would be required to perform mitigation work such as building salmon spawning channels to compensate for any habitat changes. What further steps the eight-page initiative would require if approved is unclear.
The initiative makes no mention of mitigation, and the wording would appear to make it difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate a salmon stream to allow for mining, a practice that was once the norm in the state.
Devastation and resilience
The history of mining in the north is a testament to the mess humans will make of the environment when driven by greed and of the resilience of nature – salmon in particular.
The north’s first big gold rush “in one sense, left creek valleys strewn with muddy debris,” Kathryn Taylor Morse wrote in The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush. “In another sense, it made them the richest fields on the continent. In making them rich in this particular way, gold mining turned the creeks into places where fishing and hunting and gathering became more difficult and less successful if not, at the time, impossible.”
What was true of the Klondike along the upper reaches of the Yukon River in Canada was true on down the Yukon drainage through the frozen heart of Alaska and west across the then-Alaska Territory to the Bering Sea and south to the Gulf of Alaska.
Mining on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Alaska’s largest city, and in the Susitna River valley, north of Alaska’s largest city, devastated some salmon stocks in the period from 1900 to the second World War.
“During the summer months, the water of Little Susitna River is slightly turbid, probably from rock flour from the Mint Glacier at its headwaters,” U.S. Geological Survey investigator Fred Lawrence reported in 1949. “It was reported that all fish life in the stream had been killed in years past by mine waste, possibly cyanide from concentrating processes….Salmon do not run in this stream.”
All across Alaska this history of mining is much the same. The miners came, and the salmon disappeared. When miners cleaned up their operations, the fish eventually returned.
As with commercial fishing so, too, with mining: Once humans stop killing salmon in excess numbers, salmon populations recover.
Salmon are among the most resilient and adaptable species on the planet. Scientists studying hatchery salmon early in this decade were a little surprised to learn they can evolve within a generation.
“First-generation hatchery fish had nearly double the lifetime reproductive success (measured as the number of returning adult offspring) when spawned in captivity compared with wild fish spawned under identical conditions, which is a clear demonstration of adaptation to captivity,” wrote Mark Christie and colleagues in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2011.
Salmon and closely related rainbow trout were considered so resilient, adaptable and plentiful, as once noted by assistant Secretary of the Interior Bill Horn, an avid fisherman and one-time aide to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, that little thought was given to establishing refuges for them during the lands battle.
The Great Settlement
Instead, ANILCA focused on preserving charismatic megafauna – grizzly bears, caribou and wolves – and wilderness.
It doubled the size of the country’s national park system, added almost 10 million acres to the national wildlife refuge system and – all told – pulled 157 million acres of land – a chunk of Alaska bigger than the state of Minnesota – under a federal blanket of protection from development.
Afterward, the rest of the state was supposed to start to open for development. But not all that much happened. Anchorage and the neighboring Matanuska-Susitna Borough boomed, and the Central Alaska city of Fairbanks grew, but overall the human footprint in the north remained small.
At the 1980 census, there were reported to be 143,000 people living in rural Alaska. The state has grown significantly since then, but there might now be fewer people living rural than there were 38 years ago.
All but about 127,000 of the state’s residents these days cluster in the Anchorage or Fairbanks metropolitan areas, in the two major cities of the Inside Passage, or on the Kenai Peninsula, according to the Alaska Department of Labor statistics.
What happened outside of these urban areas didn’t much matter to most Alaskans, either, until the early 2000s when along came Pebble, a massive copper deposit near Iliamna Lake in the heart of the watershed that supports the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery, the largest sockeye fishery in the world.
More than that though, Bristol Bay was home to a lodge owned by one of Alaska’s richest men, and he didn’t relish the idea of a massive copper mine in his backyard. Thus the late-Bob Gilliam launched a high-profile campaign to stop a possible Pebble mine, and the battle has raged for more than a decade now with major victories for opponents stymied by counter-attacks from Pebble.
The Alaska Clean Water Initiative made the ballot in 2008. It was aimed at severely restricting mine wastes and a clear attack on Pebble. Alaskans voted it down 57 percent to 43 percent.
But the fight was far from over.
The Environmental Protection Agency under President Barrack Obama six years later moved to ban the mine under the Clean Water Act. Pebble sued. The two sides settled in 2017. Pebble proposed a new, smaller mine plan to regulators in 2018 in an effort to secure the necessary state and federal permits.
Opponents counter-attacked with the initiative with a name hard for Alaskans to resist – Stand for Salmon – that stretched beyond Pebble. That sucked other business interests into the fight.
Out in the hinterlands of Alaska where he has spent his entire life, a well-read Nielsen sees the Pebble mine as inevitable with his community and other villages the likely collateral damage in the present skirmish which he figures to settle nothing.
Money, money, money
“There’s a trillion dollars in the ground there,” he said. “Do you think this is going to stop them?”
That argument has some merit. The mine site is estimated to contain 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum, and 107.4 million ounces of gold. The gold is already highly valuable, but the value of the copper might far exceed it.
Major financial institutions are predicting a steadily growing demand for copper as some governments try to shift from oil-driven economies to electric-driven economies.
“The production, distribution and transmission of all that power will require a great deal of copper,” said a DBS Bank analysis. “In particular, the electrification of transportation (in the form of battery-powered vehicles) will be a mega-trend. Copper, with its superb electrical conductivity and lack of price-competitive substitutes, will be the key metal wherever electricity is used.”
The financial incentives to develop Pebble are, in Nielsen’s view, only going to keep growing.
“The fanatics and zealots are cutting off their noses to spite themselves,” Nielsen said. “Why do this when we aren’t going to stop it (Pebble)?”
One of the supporters of the initiative, former Commissioner of Fish and Game Frank Rue, lent some weight to Nielsen’s analysis in an editorial in the Juneau Empire where he wrote this:
“If this initiative passes, the legislature has the ability to immediately clarify language in the initiative if necessary, and in two years the legislature can amend, or even go so far as to repeal, the initiative.”
Nielsen worries about what could happen in those two years in rural Alaska where state and federal environmental regulations already make it hard for small communities to get anything done.
He talks about how it took years for Kokhanok to get a sewer lagoon permitted and how much existing regulation added to the cost.
“The paperwork cost was about half the project,” he said. He only sees the initiative making things worse.
“Where is the money (for increased costs) going to come from?” he asked. “The big guys aren’t going to care. It might slow them down a little,” but eventually they will win.
He’s not sure that would be bad, either.
Alaska is changing. The value of the fish that once supported Bristol Bay is falling in the face of competition from farmed salmon. Commercial fishermen are “stacking permits”, a form of consolidation, to maximize profits, he said.
That has the effect of making for fewer permits, and there haven’t been enough to go around for years already. Few young people can get into the fishing business. The average age of a Bristol Bay fisherman is now 50, and half the region’s permits have moved away because of the modern attractions of city life.
“The kids,” Neilsen asked, “what going to be available for them?”
When the EPA held hearings on Pebble Mine, one of them was in Seattle. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., requested it because so many of her constituents and other Pacific Northwest fishermen now hold a stake in what happens in the Bay.
Many, if not most, of those familiar with Alaska salmon and the state’s habitat protection laws agree the nearly 40-year-old standards for protecting salmon streams could do with an update. The Legislature had the issue before it earlier this year, but legislation went nowhere.
As with so many issues in so many places in the country today, compromise is near impossible because there is no trust. Instead, in states like Alaska, there are stalemates in what has become a regulatory-environmental Cold War.
The warriors for the environment see many established resource industries as modern evils to be transformed into something “cleaner,” or eliminated. The warriors for industry see environmentalist as disingenuous deal makers who cannot be trusted and will challenge any development in court no matter what sort of political agreement is reached.
Given this sort legislative standoff, environmental issues in the 49th state sometimes have nowhere to go but to the initiative process, which is easier in Alaska than some other states. An effort to ban commercial setnet fisheries to protect king salmon made it on the ballot in 2014. It failed as had the clean water initiative six years earlier.
But voters did approve an initiative to ban aerial hunting of wolves in 1996. Three years later, the Legislature overrode the initiative and wrote a law to again permit aerial shooting. A second initiative was launched in 2000 and again passed.
This time the state Board of Game responded in 2002 by beginning an aggressive strategy of lowering bear and wolf numbers under the guise of the state’s “intensive management” law.
“The Game Board adopted de facto intensive management virtually everywhere by greatly lengthening hunting and trapping seasons for predators and increasing bag limits,” Vic Van Ballenberghe, a former member of the Board of Game and wildlife researcher complained in the Anchorage Daily News in 2016.
Officials of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game countered that the program was effective in boosting prey numbers. Intensive management continues to this day.
Eighteen years after the last initiative against aerial hunting was approved, not as many of the animals are being shot from airplanes – only state wildlife officials are to allowed to do such shooting now in specially approved “control” areas – but just as many wolves are dying.
And grizzlies have been added to the list of predators for which removal has been made easier. In the end the ban on aerial hunting seems only to have strengthened the resolve of those who wished to reduce predator numbers in Alaska in the name of increasing survival odds of for their prey.
One can only guess what strange twists will come if the salmon initiative passes.