Nature's salmon factory is threatened

The future of the Bristol Bay, Alaska, fishery is at stake as residents and non-residents alike fight the massive proposed Pebble Mine. Opponents of the copper, gold, molybdenum, and silver mine say it would only be the beginning.
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The area where the Pebble Mine would be situated (top), and the Bristol Bay, Alaska, salmon harvest. (Top: Wikipedia; bottom: Bristol Bay Alliance)

The future of the Bristol Bay, Alaska, fishery is at stake as residents and non-residents alike fight the massive proposed Pebble Mine. Opponents of the copper, gold, molybdenum, and silver mine say it would only be the beginning.

There's still gold in those hills, and not just the fool's gold people wear around their necks or fingers, but real gold. Now, we have to work together to make sure the fool's good doesn't destroy the real gold. If we need another reason, which we don't, to repeal the Mining Law of 1872, consider what might happen to one of the most remote, most productive fisheries in the world, the Bristol Bay area of southwest Alaska. Bristol Bay is a long way from the New West, you may be asking, so why should we be concerned? That's the first question I asked, too, and here's my answer. First, most of us eat salmon, right? And most anglers and hunters I know dream about Alaskan salmon fishing or remote hunts for caribou or moose. And those among us who don't hunt or fish still yearn for a chance to marvel at the scenery of the last frontier, right? Well, if we want to keep doing this, we should join in the growing chorus to defeat what might be the largest and most destructive mining venture ever conceived, the Pebble Mine. That mine was the subject of a breakfast session at the recent Outdoor Writers Convention of America meeting in Roanoke, Va. Leah Elwell, conservation director for the Federation of Fly Fishers from Livingston, Mont., made eating breakfast difficult with her description of destruction sure to be caused by the proposed Pebble Mine. Which obviously should be re-named something like the Gargantuan Boulder Mine, because it's two miles across, twice as big as the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Mont., and about the same size as the Bingham Canyon Pit near Salt Lake City, which is considered the largest excavation on earth. "This is the world's most productive salmon fishery and one of the greatest spots on earth," she started out, "and this mine is going right in the middle of it." Elwell then went through the mine's stats, which are staggering – a 120-mile haul road through pristine wilderness along Lake Iliamna, which is the size of Lake Erie, 2,000 temporary construction workers and residences and other ancillary development, 1,000 permanent workers to operate the mine and dig a hole you'll be able to see from the space shuttle, and, the capper for me, a tailings "pond" created by the largest earthen dam on earth, four miles across and bigger than Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River in Montana and the current largest dam on earth, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze in China. This dam does not create recreational reservoir. It's intended to hold back the toxic byproducts of the massive mine and keep them from poisoning even more water downstream. And we're talking real poison here, because the mine plans to use the cyanide-leaching process that has sterilized many streams and that has been banned by the voters of Montana. Then Elwell really made us choke on our French toast when she said, "This is only the beginning. There are lots of other mines coming, so this is just the tip of the iceberg and it sets the stage for more development." About 1,000 square miles of federal and state land have been leased in the area around the proposed Pebble Mine site. The remoteness of the area has saved it from the draglines to date, but with the new major road built to the Pebble Mine, more mines would follow. The Pebble Mine is not just a gold mine. The miner, a Canadian company called Northern Dynasty, also dredges copper, molybdenum, and silver out of this fragile landscape. But it's the gold that gets to me. Roughly 85 percent of the gold mined in the world goes to make jewelry. If we were destroying the world's best salmon fishery for a needed commodity, it might be a little different, but for gold chains? This fact has even brought Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, out in opposition to the mine. Stevens, commonly considered one of the most pro-development, anti-environment senators, joins 70 percent of Alaska residents opposing the mine. Normally, such a line-up would mean denial, but most conservationists still worry the mine will get the green light from the politicians. Right now, the fate of Bristol Bay rests in the Alaska Legislature, which has to approve the mine, so let's hope they see the real gold on and under the surface of southwest Alaska – the salmon, the caribou, the bears, the scenic beauty – and don't vote for the fool's gold.


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