Battle to Save a World-Class Wilderness

In Alaska's legendary Bristol Bay watershed, an enormous open-pit mine would damage vital wildlife habitat, including the world's greatest spawning grounds for wild salmon

04-01-2009 // Hal Herring

IN A WIDE and shallow delta where the Koktuli River pours into the Mulchatna, I'm standing waist deep with the current tugging at my waders, casting a tiny fly to schools of sockeye salmon that shine brilliant red over the sands of the bottom. Chum salmon splash near the shoreline, pursued by the dark predatory shape of an otter's head. It's summer, and I've come here to fish in the legendary watershed of Alaska's Bristol Bay, a vast tundra wilderness veined with hundreds of miles of rivers that still run pure and wild.

Our outfitter for the trip, Anchorage resident John Carlin, has guided sportfishermen on these rivers for the past 16 years. He describes early summer, before the salmon begin to move: "When we come in to set up camp, new guides always remark on how quiet it is, and how there doesn't seem to be much life on the river. Then one day, you'll start seeing the eagles, or hearing the seagulls squawking. You'll see the arctic terns, then maybe a bear. And pretty soon after that, you'll see the splashing in the river, and suddenly, it's all happening, the fish are coming up. Everything depends on them, and everything follows them."

When Carlin says "everything," that's almost literally what he means. The world's largest spawning grounds for wild salmon--some 40 million fish in a season--the watershed of Bristol Bay supports a dizzying abundance and diversity of wildlife, from hundreds of grizzly bears, wolves, moose and eagles to tens of thousands of migratory Mulchatna caribou. Scattered throughout this 40,000-square-mile wilderness, many hundreds of pothole lakes are embedded in the deep green vegetation. On one wide expanse of water, known as Frying Pan Lake, eiders, teal and loons share nesting territories with arctic terns that have traveled from Antarctica 12,000 miles away. Lake Iliamna--75 miles long and 20 miles wide--is so large that it creates its own weather and supports one of the world's only populations of freshwater seals.

One of my companions on this trip, NWF Regional Representative Matt Little, calls the watershed of Bristol Bay "a system so big, so pristine and so productive that it's hard to describe." Commenting on the view from one of two bush planes that carried us into the region, he says: "Imagine looking to the horizon in all directions and seeing nothing but lakes, streams, tundra and rolling hills the whole way."

For some, however, the true wealth of this place lies not in its rivers or wetlands or tundra, but underground, where geologists for a Canadian mining company, Northern Dynasty, Ltd., say they have found one of the largest sources of gold, copper and molybdenum on the planet, an estimated $300 billion worth of minerals. Preparations are underway to build an enormous open-pit mine, known as the Pebble Project, that will forever alter the region with a new 104-mile-long road opening developments over as much as 1,000 square miles.

If the project is completed, Frying Pan Lake and the plains and wetlands around it would disappear into a pit estimated to be 2 miles across and 2,000 feet deep. The Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek (a major tributary of Lake Iliamna) would provide water to fill two storage lakes that would be the dumping ground for an estimated 2.5 billion tons of waste rock--known as tailings--containing sulfuric acid, lead, cadmium and a host of other poisons. The larger of these two lakes would be held back by one of the world's largest earthen dams. In theory, the lakes would prevent heavy metals and other toxic substances from destroying aquatic life in the region's natural lakes, rivers and the bay itself. Yet the dams would have to last for eternity, which many experts say is impossible given the number of earthquakes in this part of Alaska's volcanically active "Ring of Fire."

Lance Traskey, a retired biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, spent 26 years working in the area of the proposed mine. He is convinced that the development would destroy the region's world-class fishery. "It will completely obliterate the headwaters of the Koktuli and the Talarik," he says, "and with the plan to contain the tailings, you'll see the poisoning of the Koktuli, the Mulchatna and probably the Nushagak"--all major rivers of Bristol Bay's watershed.

Traskey has plenty of company in his opposition to the Pebble Project. These opponents have organized into a group called the Renewable Resources Coalition (RRC), an NWF affiliate whose members include commercial fishermen, native subsistence hunters and fishermen, lodge owners and sportsmen. The coalition's president, Richard Jameson, kept a small hunting and fishing cabin far up the Koktuli River in the mid-1980s. "This place has everything," says Jameson, "the greatest rainbow trout fishery in the world, the staging area for the spectacled eider, a huge caribou herd, bears, the largest run of sockeye salmon on Earth. It's all there. All the things that have been lost in other parts of the world."

To fight the project, in 2007 RRC tried, but failed, to gather support in Alaska's legislature for a new state game refuge that would have included the mine site and most of Bristol Bay's watershed. The same year, the organization supported a bill to prevent any mining operations in the headwaters of Bristol Bay that could damage the wild salmon fishery. It, too, failed to pass. Last August, a fight over a statewide ballot initiative that would have prevented the mine from polluting any salmon-supporting streams became the most expensive political battle in Alaska's history. Though the RRC-supported initiative failed, it garnered 43 percent of the public vote, a percentage that proves--in a state where logging, mining, petroleum and other extractive industries have held near absolute power--that the controversy is far from over.

Even the chief executive of what is now called the Pebble Partnership, veteran Alaska businessman John T. Shively, seems to recognize that such a massive conversion of the land in this great wilderness asks profound questions about the nature of humanity. In a story last year in the New York Times, Shively said: "Perhaps it was God who put these two resources right next to each other, just to see what people would do with them."

But Carlin and others who revere this place already have an answer to that question. "I cannot believe that we have to argue over this," says Carlin. "Nobody who really knew what was there would ever put it at risk. The last great fishery, the cornerstone of Southwest Alaska's economy. It's stupid for us even to have to think about it. I want our children to stand on the Mulchatna someday and say: 'Our parents stood up, and they stopped this stupid thing from ever happening.'"

Montana-based writer Hal Herring is a contributing editor to Field and Stream magazine. To find out the current status of the Pebble Project, and how you can get involved, go to www.renewableresourcescoalition.org.