Giant Strip Mine Threatens Alaska's Iconic Bristol Bay
Pick the worst place on the planet for a giant strip mine, in the heart of America’s wildest and most productive ecosystem. That’s exactly where one is planned.
What possibly could unite these diverse and in some cases adversarial players in outrage and action: 700 businesses; 700 hunting and angling groups; 77 commercial fishing groups; 200 chefs and restaurant owners; the National Council of Churches, representing 45 million people; major newspapers; leading jewelry retailers; and ultra-conservative legislators?
It would be a plan to gouge and hack the Bristol Bay watershed of southwest Alaska with the continent’s biggest strip mine.
A vestige of what America used to be survives here. The region is the size of Ohio, with a population of 7,500. It is changeless and timeless, laced by pristine rivers that rush and dawdle through forests never logged and un-scarred tundra that alternately blazes with wildflowers and glistens with snow. There are no access roads. You enter by plane or helicopter, threading between jagged, ice-clad peaks. The vastness and wildness start to sink in after you’ve flown for, say, two hours and seen no hint of human defilement.
Everything about Bristol Bay takes someone’s breath away. For me it’s the beauty, the fishing, and especially the wildlife. For folks like John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, it’s the $500 billion worth of copper, gold, and molybdenum in the “Pebble Deposit” under the headwaters of the world’s two most productive salmon rivers—the Kvichak and the Nushagak.
Learn more: read more about efforts to save Bristol Bay. Spread the word: Use Facebook and Twitter to alert friends and family to this important issue. Take action: Let the EPA know that you want the agency to follow up on its assessment and reject mining permits in Bristol Bay by writing; dine at restaurants that serve Bristol Bay’s wild salmon; and buy jewelry from companies that oppose the mine.
All of North America’s five species of Pacific salmon and their cousins, steelhead trout, thrive in Bristol Bay’s fresh and saltwater, and all are imperiled in the contiguous states. The region sustains earth’s biggest sockeye salmon population and produces half of all global salmon sales, bringing in $310 million annually to Alaska. That resource can last forever if the state doesn’t swap it for a quick fix of finite metals.
The media focuses almost entirely on the threat to people who depend on salmon, ignoring the threat to the ecosystem that also depends on them. For much of my adult life I’ve watched how that ecosystem works. Memories of Alaska blend together, so I can’t tell you the year I made the following observation. Nor can I tell you what Nushagak tributary I was on because it doesn’t have a name. I may have been the first human to wade it. Grizzlies were fishing with me, and before every bend I yelled “Yogi,” because you never want to take one by surprise. The woods were fragrant with willow, moss, forest duff, and the sweet-sour scent of sun-dried salmon parts. A gray catbird lookalike stepped from a rock into the flow and strutted underneath the water. It was an American dipper, our only aquatic songbird, and it was feasting on caddis larvae.
The larvae, in turn, were feasting on sunken salmon carcasses. All Pacific salmon die after spawning, infusing otherwise sterile freshwater with ocean nutrients that sustain a vast web of life, including their offspring until they transform to salt-tolerant “smolts” and filter tail-first to the rich Pacific.
Scarlet backs in the air, sockeye salmon rippled over gravel bars in shoals 50 feet long. Fresh from the sea and the color of polished chrome, they are spectacular game fish. Now, ravaged by fungus because energy had been diverted from their skin, muscles, and nerves to their reproductive organs, they were basically swimming gonads. In a few days they’d all be dead.
Behind them, sucking in their eggs and occasionally my barbless egg-pattern fly, were grayling (whitefish relatives with flaglike dorsal fins flecked with neon blue), rainbow trout (named for the pink stripes on their speckled flanks), Dolly Varden trout (with bellies the color of an Alaskan sunset and named for the gaudily dressed character in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge), and Arctic char (which few non-biologists can distinguish from dollies).
These freshwater fish are fading from most of their U.S. range but doing fine in Bristol Bay. They’re vital parts of the ecosystem in their own right. A few years earlier, on Bristol Bay’s Goodnews River, I’d watched huge rainbows tearing apart dead salmon rolling along the bottom. I caught them on sinking flies tied to resemble chunks of salmon flesh—this to the horror of visiting Brits who were expecting to use dry flies.
Salmon, living and dead, fuel Bristol Bay’s ecosystem. The storm of protein from the sea directly or indirectly feeds virtually everything that swims, flies, crawls, or walks in and near fresh and saltwater and far inland.