Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

Court Delivers Double-Whammy Over Pebble

Friday, May 29th, 2015
Court Delivers Double-Whammy Over Pebble

Today, the Alaska Supreme Court issued two decisions that will have far-reaching impacts about how the Department of Natural Resources conducts business in hard rock mineral exploration, and the ability of the State and others to chill opposition. While the two cases involved the Pebble Prospect exploration, neither will impact the development of that mine.


In 1988, Teck Cominco drilled the first exploration wells in what would become the 360 square-mile Pebble Prospect. By 2010, ownership of the Pebble claims would change hands from Teck Cominco to Northern Dynasty Minerals to the Pebble Limited Partnership. Collectively, those entities would drill some 1,269 core holes, some as deep as 7,000 feet, and deposit countless amounts of waste materials in unlined sump pits in this porous, water-rich area at the headwaters of the Talarik Creek/Kvichak River and Koktuli/Multchatna/Nushagak River systems in the Bristol Bay region. And all of this was conducted without a public process.

By 2009, Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of ten village corporations and ten tribal governments, and four plaintiffs – Rick Delkittie, Violet Willson, Bella Hammond, and Vic Fischer – had had enough. They filed suit against the State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources, claiming that the land use permits issued to Pebble for exploration were disposals of interests in land that required a public process according to article VIII, section 10 of the Alaska Constitution. Unlike oil and gas operations, which require a public interest determination by statute before any serious exploration begins, hard rock mineral exploration is exempt from such scrutiny.

After a two-week trial in December 2010, the plaintiffs in the case were delivered a devastating loss. The trial judge ruled that they had not shown that the exploration actions to date had caused environmental damage, and therefore they had not made their case. Under Alaska law, if a party files a suit based solely on constitutional grounds, they are exempt from paying the winning party’s attorneys fees and costs, unless the winning party can show that the plaintiffs had a “significant economic incentive.” In this case, both Pebble and the State sought to recover nearly $1 million in costs and attorneys fees from the plaintiffs, arguing that Nunamta and the other plaintiffs were merely proxies for the commercial fishing industry and thus had an economic interest. And in the process of trying to prove this economic interest, Pebble and the State went after both the non-profit law firm that represented the plaintiffs pro bono (Trustees for Alaska) as well as one of the private non-profit foundations that provided funding support to Trustees’ work.

DNR’s Practice of Allowing Unfettered Use of Land Without a Public Process

“This case is about process.”

The first of today’s decisions, Nunamta Aulukestai v. State of Alaska, addressed the merits of what the December 2010 trial addressed – whether the State was required to engage the public when authorizing permits that authorized immense disturbances to State lands. While the trial judge required the plaintiffs to enter a lengthy trial to provide evidence to prove that the lands and waters involved in the Pebble exploration had been damaged, the Alaska Supreme Court disagreed with that approach, noting that the issues presented were “primarily ones of law” and adding that, in the future, such issues should resolved without a full trial.

And what was that key legal issue? Whether or not the types of permits issues (called Miscellaneous Land Use Permits) were disposals of an interest in land requiring a public process under the Alaska Constitution. The State had argued that since the permits themselves indicated they could be revoked “at will,” they were not disposals. In considering that argument, the Court examined both the Alaska Land Act and the Public Notice Clause of the Alaska Constitution, and prior case law. The Court noted several facts of relevance. Evidence was presented that showed that Pebble had invested nearly $400 million at that point in the project. The State and Pebble had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding, whereby Pebble would reimburse the State for its expenses associated with issuing the permits. Additionally, Nunamta had presented evidence that Pebble feared damage to its return on investment. Finally, there was the perceived public importance of the exploration – how many jobs were at stake – and how that would deter DNR from ever revoking the permits. The Court concluded that, given this evidence “a state land manager could feel tremendous pressure not to revoke or refuse to renew” the permits in question, making it unlikely that DNR would revoke the permit.

The second issue the Court examined was whether, if a permit was revoked, the permittee could vacate the land without damaging or destroying the property. The Court recounted evidence of substantial waste product stored on the land,  and abandoned and core holes plugged with concrete and steel, which the Court determined would be structures that could not be removed. The Court added that the buried waste sumps were “lasting alterations of the land,” and that there was “potential for environmental damage primarily through pollution of groundwater by the toxic waste that has been disposed of on the land and by acid rock drainage.” In the end, these two factors – the unlikelihood that the State would revoke the permits and the longlasting impacts to the land – showed that the permits were functionally irrevocable and thus disposals of interest in land that required a public process.

And the plaintiffs should not have been required to prove that the land had already been damaged. Rather, it was up to the State to look prospectively. The Court noted the central question of the case was whether the State had a constitutional duty to give notice and consider the potential consequences of the permitted activity. The court noted that these questions were “not answered by an after-the-fact inquiry in which a private party is tasked with the burden of proving that substantial environmental damage has occurred.” Rather, the Court noted, “The State must know how it should act before it acts.” And if the State needs to assess potential environmental impacts, “the assessment must be made prospectively based on known and possibly known consequences.” That means, for example, if you know that acid rock drainage can occur as a result of hard rock mineral exploration, it must be considered. And if there is a duty to give notice and consider those potential consequences, the duty is not discharged simply because the activity may seem harmless in foresight. “The duties asserted are intended to facilitate public involvement and informed decision making, and to minimize environmental harm and damage to conflicting users.”

Since the public process associated with the best interest findings required for oil and gas operations is statutory, it is difficult to predict how the State will react to this decision. Will DNR develop some interim rules to incorporate the Court’s ruling? Or will there be a push in the next legislative session to provide statutory guidance for upland hardrock mineral exploration like there is for oil and gas? It is too early to tell.

No Chilling Citizen Lawsuits

The second case, Alaska Conservation Foundation v. Pebble Limited Partnership, could have even broader implications than whether the State has to provide public notice when it plans to authorize long term, potentially damaging use of public lands.

Under Alaska’s Civil Rule 82, the losing party typically has to pay costs and attorneys fees to the winning party in a civil lawsuit. But in its 1974 Gilbert v. State decision, the Alaska Supreme Court recognized a “public interest exception” to protect litigants who raise issues that are of public importance. But, the Alaska Legislature gutted that exception in 2003 by enacting what is now AS 09.60.010, which limited the protection to only claimants who raised constitutional claims. And that protection against paying costs and fees would go away if the losing party had a “sufficient economic incentive.”

And while Nunamta Aulukestai and the other plaintiffs pursued only constitutional claims in their key case, Pebble and the State claimed that no, their interest was not constitutional, but economic, and therefore they had to pay Pebble’s and the State’s costs and fees. Pebble and the State claimed that other parties who had economic interests were merely hiding behind the plaintiffs, pulling the strings. And they argued that protecting subsistence hunting and fishing was an economic interest. In an attempt to prove this, Pebble and the State pursued relentless post-trial discovery, going after Nunamta to disclose its members and sources of funding, looking for ties between its shareholders and commercial fishing and recreation industries, and going after individuals’ personal assets. These inquiries even went after Nunamta’s attorneys, Trustees for Alaska, and one of Trustees’ funding sources, the Alaska Conservation Foundation. And Pebble openly admitted that it was going after ACF because ACF had funded other organizations and efforts that sought to protect Bristol Bay.  And among the people that Pebble and the State pursued were Bella Hammond, former First Lady of Alaska, and Victor Fischer, one of the two surviving delegates of Alaska’s Constitutional Convention. In other words, Pebble and the State sought to silence plaintiffs who would challenge highly-financed activities like hard rock mineral exploration, as well as any attorneys that might dare to represent them and any one else who would provide funding support. Needless to say, such an assault, if successful, would have a substantial chilling effect on anyone who would want to challenge State actions in the future.

And yet, somehow, the trial court accepted Pebble’s arguments and ordered the discovery. Fortunately for future public interest litigants, the Alaska Supreme Court did not.

The Court noted that the “sufficient economic incentive” test can only be met when the case is brought “primarily to advance the litigant’s direct economic interest, regardless of the nature of the claim.” The Court noted that the trial court erred by reaching beyond the parties and the actual claims in the case to find there was an economic interest by Nunamta and the other plaintiffs. It was clear that the primary objective of the case was to raise constitutional claims about DNR’s permitting process. The Court stressed that party’s had to have a direct economic interest, and that even if there were a third party “pulling the strings,” even that party would have to have a direct economic interest. And even if commercial fishing interests were funding the litigation or other efforts to stop the Pebble development, the outcome of whether the Pebble permits were unconstitutional would not have any direct impact on commercial fishing.

And allowing a successful litigant to go after the funding for constitutional litigation “can lead easily to the wrong result.” The Court added that “there rarely, if ever, should be a situation where the economic interests of lawyers representing a constitutional claimant are relevant to AS 09.60.010.” Simply earning an attorney’s fee award cannot meet this standard, nor can the publicity or fundraising that such a case could generate.

Finally, the Court addressed the issue of whether the desire to protect the Bristol Bay area for subsistence hunting and fishing was a “sufficient economic incentive.” But Nunamta’s desires in the case focused on the public process and notice it desired for issuing the permits, not direct economic compensation; and the Court noted that protecting subsistence uses “is not sufficient economic incentive to bring a lawsuit.”

Thus, the end result of the two cases left the Alaska Supreme Court sending the case back to the trial court and ordering it to render judgment in favor of Nunamta Aulukestai and the other plaintiffs, and thus, also ordering the trial court to prepare to issue an order of attorney’s fees in favor of the plaintiffs. The case was filed in 2009, taking nearly six years to resolve. Unfortunately, two of the plaintiffs would not live to see this day. Violet Willson, the matriarch of a four-generation family of commercial fisherman (and herself a commercial fisherman for over 50 years), passed away on January 15. Bobby Andrew, who was a spokesperson for Nunamta Aulukestai and one of the elders who routinely made trips to London to speak out at Anglo-American shareholder meetings, passed away on May 12. But their legacy in this effort will live on to ensure that the State will act more responsibly in the future, and that if it doesn’t, the citizens of Alaska will still be protected when they fight to make sure the State lives up to its constitutional obligations.





Why Wilderness is Important to Me as an Artist

Friday, November 21st, 2014
Why Wilderness is Important to Me as an Artist

In his book, The Singing Wilderness, Sigurd Olson said:

Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost.

My first exposure to designated wilderness came from working two summers as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. So, if I am going to say anything about how wilderness is important to me as an artist, I have to start with a quote from Sigurd Olson. Author, conservationist and staunch advocate for the wilderness, he was one of the people key in setting aside the Boundary Waters as protected wilderness. It was there among the granite, lakes, spruce and moose that I first learned of Sigurd Olson and read his words. I learned of his tireless advocacy, and I learned from others how he influenced their own perception of wilderness.

What Sigurd Olson had to say in that excerpt from The Singing Wilderness touches on the many challenges of being a photographer in the wilderness, and the many advantages and benefits of doing it.

In the modern digital age of photography, it is almost impossible it seems to go out in the field without “unnecessary gadgets.” Whenever I am on the road system, I will go out with two digital camera bodies, a medium format film camera body, five to six lenses, an assortment of filters, a flash, two tripods, and an assortment of spare batteries, flash cards, and other accessories. But those are just the things, the gadgets. As Sigurd Olson noted, there are also thoughts and objectives that bog us down. Along with the gadgetry of the digital age comes an ever-increasing pressure to produce, and, unfortunately, too often produce what everyone else is producing. Walk into any professional photo gallery on the Las Vegas strip, for example, and you will see some of the same subjects being displayed among numerous photographers. National photography magazines repeatedly publish images of iconic locations that have been photographed again and again. It is a pressure to produce, and to conform.

How does wilderness help me to avoid these traps that Sigurd warned us about? Well, Galen Rowell showed us what wonders can be captured using a simple film body and a pair of lenses – often without a tripod at all because he was capturing the image while ascending some sheer granite rock face. Wilderness by its very inaccessibility forces us to plan an expedition with minimal gear. I could not take on a backcountry trip all of the things that I load into my car. So travel into the wilderness forces me to make choices about gear – taking only one body and two lenses and a very light tripod. Having such minimal gear then forces me to be more creative in my choice of composition. It makes me think more, spend more time, and contemplate the world around me with fewer options.

Practically speaking, when going into the wilderness, you also have to prepare for spending more time in the field. It is hard to do a two or three-day backcountry wilderness trip in Alaska. When I was the Artist-in-Residence in Badlands National Park, I could park at a trailhead, put on my backpack, and go for a three-day trip through a wilderness area, and then be back on the road again. Not so much up here. And that extra time we must spend by necessity out in the land allows more time to be creative. When so much of our road-accessible public lands are designed around the pullout and viewpoint, where images can be captured rather easily in a short period of time, wilderness requires us to slow down, allows more opportunity to notice the world around us. It gives us the chance to spend an entire day just sitting on an outcrop and watch the caribou go by, or allows us the luxury of base camping for a week to explore a valley.

With my Artist-in-Residence experience in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I gained my first exposure to the Arctic. Having lived in Alaska for eight years at that point, I had never been as far north as Fairbanks. My artist residency took me to creative places I had never experienced before, and started me on a stronger creative path than I had been on previously. As a result of that residency, I have developed the ability to focus on a project and develop a true sense of style. It also helped me to realize how wilderness is not just a landscape, but the people who venture into it: the backcountry traveler, the guide, the subsistence hunter and trapper. The story of the land includes their stories as well.

While having that time to be creative is a luxury, it is also a privilege. “How often we speak of the great silences of the wilderness and of the importance of preserving them and the wonder and peace to be found there,” Sigurd Olson said. Yet, so many people will never have the opportunity to experience a wilderness area in Alaska. They may not have the time, the financial resources, or the physical ability. Understanding that enhances and magnifies the importance of being a wilderness artist. We play a key role in reminding people why such areas are protected, of letting people know that lands of such beauty even exist. We give them a chance to experience at least some aspect of the intrinsic value of wilderness, which is important because, as Olson also noted, “[Wild places] will always be there and their beauty may not change, but should their silence be broken, they will never be the same.”

So as many photographers continue to chase the iconic locations that all of their peers are capturing, wilderness allows me to fulfill my own creative vision and continue to develop an intimate relationship with my subjects. And hopefully, through sharing my work, others can develop a sense of that intimacy as well.

EPA Proposes Limiting Size, but not Stopping, Pebble Mine

Friday, July 18th, 2014
EPA Proposes Limiting Size, but not Stopping, Pebble Mine

The EPA has released a “Proposed Determination” as to how it plans to exercise its authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), regarding the development of the Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. Le’t be clear – the EPA is not proposing that construction of the Pebble Mine be prohibited. It is merely proposing that it be limited in scope.

As with its prior documents, the newly-released Proposed Determination has a lot of background information that you have to wade through before you get to the meat of the document. As they say in the journalism business, the EPA seriously buries the lead. This background information details the geographic features of the region, the sockeye salmon habitat and population (as well as other salmon species), the source documents for the EPA assessment, the anticipated size of the Pebble Mine as proposed by Northern Dynasty Minerals, and the final watershed assessment. The EPA also details its legal authority under the Clean Water Act to take the proposed action, and the steps it has followed pursuant to that authority.

The EPA then notes that the “proposed geographic boundaries of the potential disposal site are the waters within the mine claims held by [Northern Dynasty Minerals] subsidiaries, including [Pebble Limited Partnership], that fall within the SFK, NFK, and UTC watersheds.” Those initials stand for South Fork Koktuli, North Fork Koktuli (both of which feed into the Koktuli River, which feeds into the Mulchatna River, which feeds into the Nushagak River and Bristol Bay), and Upper Talarik Creek (which feeds into Lake Iliamna, then the Kvichak River then Bristol Bay). In the executive summary, the EPA notes, “To protect important fishery areas in the SFK, NFK, and UTC watersheds from unacceptable adverse effects, EPA Region 10 recognizes that losses of streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds and alterations of streamflow each provide a basis to issue this Section 404(c) proposed determination.”

But the scope of the proposed protection is very narrow in that it is only directed at the construction of the mine, not the operation of the mine. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act deals with wetlands and physical impacts to waterways, not with contamination to waterways. Contamination is governed by the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES. The EPA has transferred NPDES permitting authority to the State of Alaska, which hasn’t met a large-scale mine it didn’t like. But it is the likelihood of contamination to the watershed that presents the greatest, most long-lasting threat to Bristol Bay as a result of developing the Pebble Mine. And such contamination would be controlled by the terms of a NPDES permit. Yet addressing that threat is not part of the EPA’s proposed action, and is left to state control.

As the EPA notes in the executive summary,

This evaluation does not include footprint impacts associated with all of the components necessary to construct and operate such a mine (e.g., a major transportation corridor, pipelines, a power-generating station, wastewater treatment plants, housing and support services for workers, administrative offices, and other infrastructure). It also does not rely upon impacts resulting from potential accidents and failures as a basis for its findings. There is a high likelihood that wastewater treatment plant failures would occur, given the long management horizon expected for the mine (i.e., decades). There is also real uncertainty as to whether severe accidents or failures, such as a complete wastewater treatment plant failure or a tailings dam failure, could be adequately prevented over a management horizon of centuries, or even in perpetuity, particularly in such a geographically remote area subject to climate extremes. If such events were to occur, they would have profound ecological ramifications. By not relying on potential accidents and failures, EPA Region 10 has employed a conservative analysis of adverse effects.

So, what does the EPA propose? A smaller Pebble Mine. Again, from the executive summary:

Accordingly, the Regional Administrator proposes that EPA restrict the discharge of dredged or fill
material related to mining the Pebble deposit into waters of the United States within the potential
disposal site that would, individually or collectively, result in any of the following.

1. Loss of streams
a. The loss of 5 or more linear miles of streams with documented anadromous fish5 occurrence; or
b. The loss of 19 or more linear miles of streams where anadromous fish are not currently
documented, but that are tributaries of streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence;
2. Loss of wetlands, lakes, and ponds. The loss of 1,100 or more acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds
contiguous with either streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence or tributaries of
those streams; or
3. Streamflow alterations. Streamflow alterations greater than 20% of daily flow in 9 or more linear
miles of streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence.

Thus, the EPA proposes that it will not authorize Section 404 (wetlands discharge, dredge or fill) permits for a mine whose initial construction size and operation would cause damage greater than these restrictions. Can a Pebble Mine be built that can conform to these parameters? I am sure that the folks at the Pebble Limited Partnership will find a way to say that they can. If, as one person I spoke to suggested, the Pebble Mine did not use a tailings impoundment but instead shipped all waste out via the road corridor to waiting barges at a deep water port in Cook Inlet, then the Pebble Mine would be even less restricted in scope as it would not need a “disposal site” within the defined geographic area. It could also avoid the defined geographic area by constructing the tailings facility somewhere else nearby that was not within the SFK, NFK or UTC areas. Additionally, this determination affects primarily the proposed open pit, not the underground portion of the mine design. Pebble could start with a smaller open pit, mine it completely, remediate it, and then start another pit to continue mining in a scaled approach.

And that’s the real crux of the proposed action by the EPA. Unlike what so many people were hoping for, the EPA is not proposing scuttling the Pebble Mine development, just making it smaller or changing its design. It could still be built and ultimately contaminate the sensitive watershed that produces half of the world’s sockeye salmon supply.


A Tale of Two Senators

Thursday, June 12th, 2014
A Tale of Two Senators

In May 2011, I had the pleasure of traveling to Washington, D.C. with my wife Michelle in order to attend the opening reception for the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards Photo Exhibition, on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. In advance of that trip, I made sure to schedule visits with both of my U.S. Senators – Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski. As part of the scheduling process, I explained to them why I was going to be in the District of Columbia – my winning image in the “Environmental Issues” category of a set of snow-impacted wolf prints on the frozen North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, a piece entitled “Wolf Tracks on Ice.” I did not tell them the story of why this image was submitted in the Environmental Issues category – that these wolf tracks were a metaphor for disappearing wolf populations as a result of aggressive predator control measures – because I thought it would be too political for either of their comfort.

As the timing turned out, my visits with both Senators were scheduled for the same day – the day of the reception. I met first with Senator Begich in the late morning. When I arrived, at least three of the staff engaged me and Michelle, asking questions about my award and talking about Alaska. They offered us some coffee and invited us to a tour of the Capitol building following the meeting with Senator Begich. And while we had to wait a little while  – the Senator was off voting on something – they made us feel welcome and continued to engage us. When the Senator arrived, we went into his conference room and sat down with another Alaskan and her family who were visiting. We all sat around the table and chatted a while about why each of us was in D.C. After a while, we each took turns taking photos with the Senator. Following the meeting, as promised, one of the staff took us on a tour of the Capitol building. He even gave us tickets so that we could sit in the galley of the Senate and watch the proceedings. Later, staff visited the Smithsonian to see my photo on display there and even posted it to the Senator’s Facebook page (and they were cognizant and considerate enough to ask my permission to post an image of my photo).

Our meeting with Senator Murkowski was later in the afternoon. We arrived at her office, I identified myself and that I had an appointment with the Senator, and then we sat down in the reception area. We looked at the art on the walls, we looked at what kind of books were on the shelves, what sort of magazines were on the table. Occasionally the receptionist looked up at us, then back to what she was doing. No one asked us questions. No one engaged us. No one offered us something to drink. No one explained to us why we were waiting well past the appointment time with the Senator. As it turned out, she was meeting with a gaggle of lobbyists. After waiting for a while, the door to the inner sanctum opened and out poured a group of five or six lobbyists in suits, chuckling and chatting away with Senator Murkowski as she emerged with them. Parting words and sentiments were shared and they were on their way. Michelle and I were then invited back to join the Senator, we had a brief chat (with little or no discussion of my photo), and took pictures – one set with just me and one with me and Michelle. They only took one shot of each – and the one with Michelle is no good because her eyes were closed. We were then sent on our way. The only follow up to the meeting was delivery of the prints of the photos.

These two experiences understandably left me with a very different perspective on the values, interests and concerns of these two Senators.

These personal interactions highlighting differences between the Senators have also been replicated in a key Alaskan policy issue that is important to me: the fate of the Bristol Bay region. Bristol Bay is an amazing watershed that provides 50% of the world’s sockeye salmon and has been a focus of mine for the last three years, where I have been doing fieldwork for my upcoming book Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. When several regional Tribes petitioned the EPA to protect the area under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), the people of Alaska waited to see how its U.S. Senators would respond. People pushed Senator Begich to take a stand to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from the development of the Pebble Mine. He delayed, noting that he wanted to wait for the results of the EPA’s scientific watershed assessment (which began in 2011) before taking a position. But once that final watershed assessment was published in January 2014, he came out in opposition to the development of the mine. In contrast, when the final watershed assessment was released, Senator Lisa Murkowski issued a statement asserting that the EPA’s involvement was a “preemptive veto” that would set a “terrible precedent.”

To be clear, however you phrase it, a “preemptive veto” is precisely what the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c) authorizes. Here is Section 404(c) in full:

The Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site, and he is authorized to deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification) as a disposal site, whenever he determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas. Before making such determination, the Administrator shall consult with the Secretary. The Administrator shall set forth in writing and make public his findings and his reasons for making any determination under this subsection.

So, the key phrases to notice are “authorized to prohibit” and “deny or restrict” using an area as a disposal site … when the “discharge of such materials” would have an “unacceptable adverse effect on … fishery areas.” The law also requires notice and opportunity for public hearings. The EPA conducted numerous public hearings in 2012 and 2013, and has even given additional notice to the Pebble Limited Partnership of additional public hearings following the release of the final watershed assessment.

Sometime after Senator Murkowski complained that it would be improper for the EPA to issue a “preemptive veto” of the Pebble Mine, someone on her staff must have actually read Section 404(c) and realized that, yes, Congress did authorize the EPA to do such a thing. Well, if Congress has authorized an agency to do a specific thing, how do you stop the agency from doing what Congress has authorized? You get Congress to de-authorize it. Hence, Senator Murkowksi became a co-sponsor of the Orwellian “Regulatory Fairness Act of 2014.” The bill, if passed, would strip the EPA of the specific authority granted in Section 404(c). From 1980 to 2010, the EPA has invoked Section 404(c) only 13 times – 11 times during Republican administrations (Carter’s EPA invoked it once and Obama’s EPA invoked it in 2010). Given that no effort was made to strip the EPA of its Section 404(c) power in its prior uses, it’s clear that the purpose of the “Regulatory Fairness Act” is to ensure the development of the Pebble Mine.

But these are just my own observations, based on personal experience and reflecting on a specific policy choice where I have invested time and energy. Don’t just take my opinion that these two Senators have vastly different world views, take it also from the League of Conservation Voters. On their National Environmental Scorecard, the LCV viewed votes on 13 different bills in the Senate and gave the two Senators very divergent scores. For Senator Begich, both his 2013 score and his lifetime score are 77% – that’s consistency. But for Senator Murkowski, her most recent score was 38%, a dramatic improvement from her lifetime 21% score. In either case, it’s still a failing grade and her votes went against several issues that impact Alaskans – climate change, clean water (no-show on the vote), the confirmation of the EPA Administrator, and subsidizing the oil industry.

And some people say that all Senators are alike.

Wilderness Forever Semi-Finalist Selections

Friday, January 17th, 2014
Wilderness Forever Semi-Finalist Selections

On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. The law would establish the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and create the highest classification of protection for Federal public lands – “wilderness.” It recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It further defined wilderness – for purposes of the NWPS – as an area “retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

Currently, there are 757 wilderness areas in the NWPS – over 109 million acres in 44 states, totaling only about 5% of the total land area of the United States.  The largest addition of acreage to the national wilderness system came in 1980, with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Then, President Jimmy Carter added over 56 million acres in national park and national wildlife refuge lands to the NWPS. Today, Alaska’s share of wilderness constitutes some 56% of the total acreage of the NWPS.

So, when Nature’s Best Photography magazine announced that it was conducting a photo competition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I knew I would have an advantage given my own photography of wilderness areas in Alaska. My two chief photography projects in the last six years have involved two wilderness areas: Lake Clark Wilderness and Gates of the Arctic Wilderness. So, when the call came out for submissions to the “Wilderness Forever” competition, I looked to my images from those two areas. Why? Both included some of my most recent wilderness photography work, and they included areas that would not likely be included in submissions by other photographers.

I learned this week that five of my images – three from Lake Clark and two from Gates of the Arctic  – have been selected as semi-finalists in the Wilderness Forever competition. As an interesting side note, the three Lake Clark images were all taken during the same trip to the Twin Lakes region in June 2013, and all of the Gates of the Arctic images were from the same trip in early March 2010. Out of 5,500 submissions, they narrowed down the pool to 300 images in the semi-final round of judging. Winning images will be included in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  Here’s hoping for a trip to D.C. for the exhibit opening in September!

Feature in National Parks Magazine

Friday, January 17th, 2014
Feature in National Parks Magazine

In December 1980, in the final days of his administration, President Jimmy Carter signed into law what is commonly known as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). A work in progress for nearly a decade, since the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ANILCA is perhaps the most significant single piece of conservation legislation in the history of this country. In a post-ANILCA world, Alaska now possesses approximately 70% of all national park lands in the United States and some 85% of national wildlife refuge lands. In a related note, Alaska now possesses some 56% of all lands designated as wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Aside from creating several entirely new national parks and expanding the boundary of some existing parks, as well as creating several new national wildlife refuges, Title VIII of ANILCA also established a rural subsistence priority for the harvest of fish and wildlife on federal public lands in Alaska. What exactly does that mean? Let’s break that down into a few components.  First, the term “subsistence” refers to a traditional way of life where primary food sources are fished, caught, hunted or gathered – everything from the traditional gillnet harvest of salmon to collecting berries, eggs and edible plants, to the hunting of moose and caribou. Second, Congress indicated that the term “rural” would refer to those smaller communities and remote locations that were places other than the larger urban areas of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and some other communities. Third, the “priority” would be in place in those times where there is a shortage of the resource and decisions need to be made as to who gets the first (or only) opportunity to harvest – commercial and sport users would have to give way to the subsistence harvest of rural residents. Finally, the “federal public lands” would include most of those new lands created in ANILCA (but exclude the core original parts of some of those existing parks that were expanded, like Denali and Katmai).

In its Winter 2014 issue of National Parks, the National Parks Conservation Association has published an article highlighting the impact of ANILCA on the subsistence way of life for rural Alaskans. I am pleased to note that three of my images, including the opening double-page spread, are included in the article.  All of the images were captured in or near Lake Clark National Park & Preserve and were captured as part of the fieldwork for my upcoming book, “Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.”


Media coverage of EPA’s final Bristol Bay watershed assessment

Thursday, January 16th, 2014
Media coverage of EPA's final Bristol Bay watershed assessment

Normally, I would use this blog to engage in my own reflections on photography or tell stories about being out in the field.  But, with the release of the EPA’s Final Assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed assessment, I think I will just sit back and reflect on the extensive coverage being offered by other sources.

Before allowing you to examine the coverage yourself, I will add one point of criticism.  I am sick and tired of “He Said, She Said” reporting; that is, when a reporter merely regurgitates what one side says and what the other side says about an issue. This is particularly true regarding the release of this report, where you have an article saying the pro-Pebble side objects to the hypothetical mine scenario and the EPA says is relied on a Northern Dynasty preliminary mine design.  Why the heck don’t these reporters actually look at the Northern Dynasty report for themselves and conduct their own analysis? Grrrr.


Bristol Bay salmon: EPA warns of threat from mining

Christian Science Monitor 
A government report indicates a large-scale copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region could have devastating effects on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and adversely affect Alaska Natives, whose culture is built around salmon.

EPA Says Northern Dynasty Pebble Project May Harm Alaska Salmon

Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. (NDM)’s proposed Pebble copper and gold mine in Alaska may threaten the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency final assessment. Depending on the project’s size and 

EPA sees damage to Bristol Bay if mining proceeds Hastings doc requests cost 

With help from Darius Dixon, Erica Martinson and Talia Buford. EPA SEES DAMAGE TO BRISTOL BAY IF MINING PROCEEDS: Mining activity in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region has the potential to destroy miles of salmon stream habitat, disrupt Alaska Native 

Mine threatens salmon, native cultures: agency

Oman Daily Observer
Large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses serious risks to salmon and native cultures in this pristine corner of southwest Alaska, the US Environmental Protection Agency said in a report released on Wednesday. The EPA said a mine could 

EPA: Huge Alaska mine ‘poses risks’ to Bristol Bay salmon

Seattle Post Intelligencer (blog) 
An enormous open-pit copper and gold mine, proposed near headwaters of two salmon-rich rivers, “poses risks” to Bristol Bay’s half-billion-dollar sockeye salmon fishery, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a final assessment of the proposed 

EPA report criticizes Alaska mine plan

Los Angeles Times 
SEATTLE — The largest open-pit mine in North America, proposed for Alaska’s wild and remote Bristol Bay region, would have a devastating effect on the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery and the Alaska Natives and fishermen who depend on it, 

Alaska mine threatens salmon, native cultures -US agency

VANCOUVER (Reuters) – Large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses serious risks to salmon and native cultures in this pristine corner of southwest Alaska, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a report released on Wednesday.

EPA Critical of Alaska Pebble Mine Project

Wall Street Journal 
WASHINGTON—The Environmental Protection Agency released its final report Wednesday on the potential effects of a proposed mining operation in Alaska’s Bristol Bay area, saying that the Pebble Mine could have “significant” adverse effects on salmon 

EPA: Mining would destroy fishery, villages, part of watershed in Alaska’s Bristol 

Washington Post
A large-scale mining operation in Alaska’s Bristol Bay would destroy a significant portion of the watershed, a pristine fishery that supports nearly half the world’s sockeye salmon and dozens of Native villages that have relied on fishing for thousands of years, 

Alaska’s Bristol Bay Region could be devastated by mining, EPA report finds

The Guardian 
Alaska mining A worker with the Pebble Mine project test drills in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska near the village of Iliamma, Alaska. Photograph: AL Grillo/AP. A large-scale gold and copper mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region would devastate the world’s 

Northern Dynasty Acknowledges Completion of EPA’s Flawed Bristol Bay 

Wall Street Journal
VANCOUVER, Jan. 15, 2014 /CNW/ – Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. (TSX: NDM; NYSE MKT: NAK) (“Northern Dynasty” or the “Company”) acknowledges that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today released the final version of its Bristol Bay 

A big test for Obama on the environment

Washington Post
It’s now common knowledge that, with one party in the grip of climate denialism, the best chance for serious action on climate change during Obama’s second term will be using the federal bureaucracy via executive action. The EPA in particular is the key 

EPA: Large-scale mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region could harm salmon 

Washington Post
JUNEAU, Alaska — EPA: Large-scale mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region could harm salmon, Alaska Natives. Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. A worker 

1000+ sporting groups and businesses call on the EPA to follow the science and 

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Jan. 16, 2014 /NEWS.GNOM.ES/ – Yesterday’s release by the Environmental Protection Agency of the final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment brought praise from a vast coalition of 1,048 sporting groups and businesses opposed to 

Grim Picture Painted by Final EPA Assessment of Mining in Bristol Bay

Hatch Magazine 
The long awaited final scientific assessment of the potential impacts from large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska was released earlier this week by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The pictured painted by the assessment is a 

EPA: “Alaska Gold” Mine a Threat to Salmon Fisheries

A large-scale copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed area would endanger the world’s largest sockeye salmon fisheries and the Alaska Native communities that depend on them, according to a final assessment released this week by the 

EPA Says Pebble Mine Could Devastate Bristol Bay Salmon Fishery

Earth Island Journal 
Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency released its final study of the impacts of large-scale mining, including the proposed Pebble Mine, on Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The science is clear. Mining the Pebble deposit will have severe and lasting 

Pebble mine poses risks to Bristol Bay salmon, EPA concludes

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its final Bristol Bay Assessment describing potential impacts to salmon and ecological resources from proposed large-scale copper and gold mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The report, titled An 

EPA: Pebble mine poses significant risk to salmon

Anchorage Daily News 
FILE- In this July 13, 2007 file photo, a worker with the Pebble Mine project test drills in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska near the village of Iliamma, Alaska. An EPA report indicates a large-scale copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region could have 

EPA: Mining Activity in Alaskan Watershed Harmful to Wildlife

National Journal 
An environmental assessment released Wednesday concludes that industrial-scale mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay Watershed would endanger native species.(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images). Clare Foran. By Clare Foran · Follow on Twitter.

US EPA publishes ‘final chapter in very sad story’ – Northern Dynasty

Creamer Media’s Mining Weekly
TORONTO ( – The proponent of one of the largest undeveloped minerals resources left in the world, on Thursday said US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) final version of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (BBWA) was “really 

EPA Critique Of Pebble Copper-Gold Mine Draws Praise, Blame From 

International Business Times
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has signed off on a key scientific report that says a potential giant Alaskan copper and gold mine poses serious environmental and ecological threats. Environmentalists hailed the EPA document while industry 

Agency concludes mining would hurt Alaskan salmon

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that Alaskan salmon would suffer if a mine were to be dug in Bristol Bay. There is a large deposit of copper and gold in the Bristol Bay watershed, known as the Pebble Deposit. Northern Dynasty 

Climate Change Wakes the Dead, Big Blow to Alaska’s Pebble Mine, WV Water 

OnEarth Magazine 
Final assessment: The Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited assessment of the ecological impact of the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay yesterday. Basically, the EPA says the massive pit mine would “erase” up to 94 miles 

EPA: Pebble Mine Means ‘Long-Term Risk To Salmon, Wildlife, And Native 

This June. 12, 2003 photo provided by the Bureau of Land Management shows a stream flowing through the Bristol Bay, Alaska watershed. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bureau of Land Management. On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency released what 

Large-Scale Copper and Gold Mining In Bristol Bay Poses Major Risks, EPA Finds

Bloomberg BNA
Jan. 15 — A large-scale copper and gold mine operation in Bristol Bay, Alaska, poses significant near- and long-term risks to the region, an Environmental Protection Agency assessment released Jan. 15 found. The assessment found large-scale mining 

Jewelers, Fisherman Urge EPA to Safeguard Bristol Bay

RAPAPORT… The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final report on Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, where the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine is located, and concluded that mineral extraction could have a devastating impact on 

Gold And Copper Mining Plan In Alaska Would Destroy The World’s Largest 

Business Insider 
Sockeye salmon are seen in Bristol Bay, Alaska, in an undated handout picture provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A large-scale gold and copper mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region would devastate the world’s largest salmon fisheries, 

EPA: Alaska mine threatens salmon, native cultures

The Malay Mail Online
Sockeye salmon are seen in Bristol Bay, Alaska in an undated handout picture provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses serious risks to salmon and native cultures in this pristine corner of 

Mining could devastate Bristol Bay region

Juneau Empire
In this July 13, 2007 file photo, a worker with the Pebble Mine project test drills in the Bristol Bay region near the village of Iliamma. An EPA report indicates a large-scale copper and gold mine in the Bristol Bay region could have devastating effects on the 

The Making of a Photo: “First Toss”

Friday, September 27th, 2013
The Making of a Photo:

It was a curious chain of events that found me on a drift commercial fishing boat in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay, at the height of the sockeye salmon fishery in 2011.  As I prepared to launch into my Bristol Bay photography project, I was searching for that first connection to introduce me to people in the region.  I was looking to get my foot in the door of Bristol Bay, so to speak. Fortunately, my wife Michelle worked with someone who was the grand daughter of a matriarch of a commercial fishing family – four generations of commercial fishermen going back to before Statehood. In short time, I was on a flight to King Salmon, where a ride awaited to take me to Naknek to meet up with the matriarch herself, Violet Willson. That evening I was out photographing one of her other grand daughters, Rhonda, working her set net with her husband and son.

The next afternoon, I was on the tender Westward on a 13-hour ride down to the Ugashik Bay. As the sun rose just under a band of clouds on the horizon, I caught my first glimpse of the commercial fishing fleet, scattered about on the horizon.  They were in the midst of a sockeye salmon opener, often a limited period of time around six hours where they can catch as much as they can before the opener is done and they move into the river to deliver their catch to a waiting tender.  The Westward was on its way down to relieve another Ocean Beauty tender, which would take its haul of fish back to Naknek and deliver to the cannery.

My purpose in riding the Westward down to Ugashik was to hook up with another one of Violet’s grandchildren, Everett Thompson.  He was the skipper of the F/V Chulyen.  After several boats had delivered their catch to the Westward, I finally caught my first glimpse of the Chulyen as she approached to make her delivery; the tell-tale “No Pebble” flag was flying from her mast, and Everett was at the helm on the pilot house waving to me as he approached. When the Chulyen pulled alongside to deliver her catch, I tossed my personal bag over and jumped over with my camera bag on my back. The next opener was not until 6:00 a.m. the next day, so after the Chulyen delivered her catch, we anchored out in a small bay sheltered from the wind and caught some rest before the next day’s work was upon us.

As the opener approached, the two crewmen got the nets and the buoy ready to go.  Everett maneuvered the Chulyen around to a location where he was confident would bring in a good catch.  He suggested I join him on the pilot house for a higher perspective of the crew and the net drum. So, I pulled out my Nikon D700 and selected my Nikon 12-24 f/4.0 AFS-DX lens.  Given the brightness of the sky compared to the color of the water, I selected a Lee graduated neutral density filter (.09) to balance the exposure.  Then, it was just a matter of waiting for the crewmember to toss out the buoy at the beginning of the opener.  Everett was both driving the boat around to get it in the right position (constantly changing the scene as the sun was coming up about then) and keeping an eye on the clock to make sure his crew did not start setting the net before they legally could.

So, I waited.  All the while, the boat was constantly changing orientation, the swell of the ocean constantly forcing me to readjust my camera to match the ever-changing horizon. And, I had to make sure that the dark line of my GND hard filter matched that of the shifting horizon.  Then, the moment came.  Everett gave the signal to toss the buoy and start casting out the net. The crewman tossed the buoy, and my finger pressed down on the shutter button, while simultaneously making sure that my camera was as level as it could be with the shifting sea and all.

This was the first trip on my fieldwork for the book, my first time out on a drift commercial fishing boat, and my first drift commercial fishing opener.  So in more ways than one, this picture truly is “First Toss.”

Twin Lakes trip

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013
Twin Lakes trip

It’s been too long since I have been on a multi-day backcountry trip in Alaska. I’ve been on river floats, backpacking trips, and a kayaking trip.  A couple of decades ago, I was actually a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. But I have never in my life ever been on the client end of a guided backcountry trip.  And I could not have imagined a better first step in being a guiding client than to head out for a trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve with Alaska Alpine Adventures.

The purpose of this particular trip was to highlight backcountry recreation in the Bristol Bay region for fieldwork on my upcoming book, “Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.” While Alaska Alpine Adventures, or AAA as they call themselves, operates several trips in Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks, I selected their “Twin Lakes Paddle” trip as a good option for my fieldwork. Paddling is always a good thing when you are carrying camera gear into the backcountry, and the itinerary would include options for day hikes in order to explore the landscape.  Finally, the trip would culminate in a visit to the historic Dick Proenneke cabin on Upper Twin Lake.

I joined eleven other clients – people ranging from a pair of carpenters from New Jersey to a couple from Singapore – and one of the company’s founders, Dan Oberlatz, at the Lake & Pen Air office at Merrill Field in Anchorage. After brief introductions, we were split up into two groups and flown out to Port Alsworth, where AAA bases its operations in the Bristol Bay region. On our flight out, we had the chance to see a bull moose moving through the grassy area of the mudflats near the mouth of the Susitna River and a pod of Beluga whales. We met up with the rest of the group in Port Alsworth, headed over to The Farm Lodge, which is where our personal gear was staged to get ready for the flight out to our first base camp.

Getting thirteen people out into the backcountry using small aircraft takes some time, especially if that aircraft is a Cessna 185, which can only take 3-4 passengers plus, gear (plus one plane was dedicated exclusively to gear) at a time.  We flew out with Lake Clark Air, which had dedicated two planes to the effort to get us all out there.  With a half-hour flight one way to our drop off site, it took about three hours to complete the ferrying of people and gear.  We all found our own equipment, spread out across the peninsula we had chosen for a base camp, and selected spots to set up our tents.  While there is always opportunity on trips like this to find some alone time, this is one of the times where you have to be alone – setting up your own personal space out on the trail.  The primary considerations are comfort and view.  You look for ground that is level and free of rocks, padded if possible or otherwise on a level bed of gravel that still provides a somewhat comfortable ground.  The other part of the comfort is finding a spot that catches a good breeze, to drive away the bugs as much as possible. And, if you can, it’s always great to select a spot with a view.  Nothing like opening up the inner zipper and rain fly in the morning and looking out onto a scenic vista.

I find being out in the backcountry to be incredibly relaxing, rewarding, mind-clearing, inspiring – even with all of the work that has to be done in traveling, setting up and striking camp, preparing meals, cleaning up, and collecting water.  Take away all of the work, and you have even more time to take in the experience of being out in the wilderness.  For me, that is truly the wonder of going out into the backcountry on a guided trip.  Sure, it’s great to have someone else do the trip planning and handle the logistics, but taking away the work of cooking and cleaning up; that is really where the magic is. With Alaska Alpine Adventures, not only do they prepare incredible meals on the trip, they prepare their own product line of meals.  Called Adventure Appetites, this gourmet backcontry cuisine is pretty much unlike anything you have ever eaten in the backcountry before.  And when even the worst food can sometimes taste amazing in the backcountry, you can only imagine how great food can taste.

With five days out in the Twin Lakes area, we spent our days moving our way through the Twin Lakes areas on inflatable kayaks, taking day hikes to explore the area and get up high for incredible views, and spending some time alone to take in the wilderness to ourselves. It was right in the middle of an unusually hot summer for Alaska, and for most of the trip, it was sunny and hot.  The timing was perfect to see scores of wildflowers blooming from the lake shore all the way up to 4,500 feet on the alpine slopes above, where even the tiniest flowers towered over and dwarfed our base camp miles below. After one hike, I dragged myself back into camp, hot and sweaty, sore from the hike, and switched into a swimsuit to go take a dip in the lake.  It was a short dip, but I submerged completely into the icy waters and felt completely refreshed.

The diversity of elements to photograph were beyond what I could hope for.  The clear skies made for incredibly rich morning and evening light, casting warm tones on the Chigmit Mountains and the blooming flowers. There was also a surprise abundance of birds around us, from a nesting pair of Arctic terns near our camp to a Bonaparte’s gull to some plovers and a pair of lesser yellow legs. One morning, before the sun came up, I was sitting on the ground, capturing some wildflowers, when I looked up an saw a plover darting about on the ground, circling around me, getting closer and backing off, then getting closer again.  It was clear to me that the plover was guarding a nearby nest, but I couldn’t see it anywhere. I managed to get some tight shots of him as he came really close, then moved away in order to give him some space and reduce his anxiety. And the weather did not stay sunny and clear the whole time, which is good.  One evening, shortly after we had set up a new camp near a creek on the far end of Lower Twin Lakes, a thunderstorm rolled through, adding dramatic clouds and patterns of sunlight to the scene.  Another day, after a full day of clouds, wind and rain, the skies opened up at just the right point in the evening to cast dramatic red and pink hues on the clouds for a brilliant sunset.

After being delayed at one camp site for an extra day, the winds eased up enough for us to make the final paddle across Upper Twin Lake in order to visit Dick Proenneke’s cabin. For the carpenters from New Jersey, this was the ultimate purpose of the trip.  Dick Proenneke was dropped off on this site in 1967 with a handful of tools and supplies.  Over the next year, he would build the cabin by hand, cutting, carving and forging every piece himself using basic tools.  He would live alone in the cabin for the next 32 years, hiking extensively in the area, trapping, hunting and fishing, and through it all, taking copious notes of this daily routines and observations. Visiting the site can be very inspiring, and can instill a desire for what may appear to be a simpler life, but, I am sure that Dick’s life in the area was anything but simple.  At the very least, it was a pure life, a life dedicated to developing a relationship with the land, and understanding of the natural world that increasingly becomes impossible to attain in our modern world.

But, trips like this and others in the backcountry can be a good step toward at least maintaining a connection with the natural world, or developing at least some of an understanding of it. As a photographer, trips like this can be incredibly rewarding and rejuvenating.


“You’re Not Pro-Pebble, Are Ya?”

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

I was out in Dillingham in early May to hop on a bow picker and head out to photograph the Togiak herring fishery.  When met by my host, Frank Woods, at the airport, he introduced me to a woman, saying I was working on a book about Bristol Bay.  She was friendly and enthusiastic, but when I handed her my project business card, her expression soured just a little bit and she asked, “You’re not pro-Pebble, are ya?” I was taken back a bit by this inquiry, but she explained that my project website URL made her wonder: I explained to her that no, I was not pro-Pebble, it’s just that I included “Pebble” in the name of the URL in order to note that the story would include a little information about the Pebble conflict.

I was told recently by a friend, also from Dillingham, that she had been trying to get the word out about fundraising for my project, but that people were weary to support it because they were concerned that I leaned in favor of Pebble.  Another person told me last week that the fundraising video on my Kickstarter campaign page was too neutral.

It is true, my project fundraising video is very neutral in tone.  But there is a reason.

Primary above all things, I do not want the focus of the book to be on the potential development of the Pebble Mine. I want to tell three stories about Bristol Bay: commercial fishing, the subsistence way of life, and recreational activities in the region.  But it would be dishonest to tell a story about this region without including some discussion on the thing that is the topic of so much discussion and controversy in the area.  Sure, there are other mineral exploration projects that could produce mines and there is the potential for offshore oil and gas development when the temporary moratorium for the region expires in a few years, but people out here are not talking about those things.  Those other projects are not pitting neighbors and family members against one another.  Those other topics don’t produce community meetings where people are told to leave the kids at home because of the heated, and often profane, arguments that ensue about Pebble.  And none of those other projects seem to really put in the spotlight at center stage a controversy that goes right to the heart of Alaska – the tension between conservation and development of its abundant resources.

In order to tell the story about Bristol Bay in a way that has the most impact, I have to leave my personal opinion about the development of the mine in the background.  Why? Because, to use the “preaching to the choir” analogy, my audience is not the choir, but the people who have come into the church for the first time. The people who live in Bristol Bay and rely on its abundant fish and wildlife to survive already know it’s a wonderful place that must be sustained.  In all my travels, the only people I have met who are either in favor of the mine development are those who currently benefit economically from the mine exploration – that is, they have a job or their spouse has a job, or their company is hired by Pebble to perform services. So my message is not to the people of Bristol Bay, it is to that person from Tennessee who has never been to Alaska or Bristol Bay, or probably has not even heard of Bristol Bay.  I need to introduce that person to a new world, using only true stories, facts and photos to help them appreciate what a wonderful, amazing place it is.

It is also important to me to have as much access to the people of the region that I can in order to tell an honest, comprehensive story about Bristol Bay.  If I only speak to one side, I don’t get the whole story. It is my experience that there is a solid reason why people are for or against the mine, and it often relates directly to their way of life.  Thus, I can miss out on significant aspects of the way of life in the region if I leave out whole segments of the population. And people in certain villages are vary weary of anyone who is rabidly anti- or pro-Pebble.  They have been visited again and again by outsiders who want to know how they feel about Pebble. In the area of Iliamna, Newhalen and Nondalton, there is a lot of politics and posturing related to the mine.  As one Dena’ina Athabascan elder told me, the mine issue has turned people against each other, and in a way that is contrary to their traditions and beliefs.  When I contacted the Newhalen Tribal Council about coming to the area for a visit, they were pleased to see that I presented my project in a neutral, objective way.

In addition to that, people who are new to a subject are generally turned off by negativity.  They don’t want to hear gloom and doom and rants about evil foreign corporations running amok in Alaska.  They want puppies and bunnies, rainbows and blue skies. Well, not quite, but you get the point.  In an increasingly polarized world, people are increasingly tuning out the advocacy pieces. Generally, the only people who read a “hit” piece are people who already agree with the issue.

So, in my travels, I have tried to seek out as many people as I can to learn about their way of life.  That is my primary goal, to answer the question, “What is your life like out here?” Sometimes I don’t even ask people how they feel about Pebble, but invariably it comes up in conversation.  For one gentleman at fish camp near Nondalton, all I had to do was say my name and that I was a photographer, to which he asked, “Who do you work for?”  I said I worked for no one, and told him that I was doing a book about Bristol Bay.  He proceeded to go on a diatribe against people where were anti-Pebble, saying it was not fair to be against the mine if there is no mine plan.  I refrained from contradicting him and telling him that there was, in fact, a mine plan; rather, I kept trying to ask questions like “So how has your summer been? Have you caught a lot of fish? How have the fish been?” But, to no avail.  I wanted to tell him how my book would touch on the Pebble issue, but he really was not interested in having a discussion. Fortunately, my ride came and told me it was time to go, and I was glad to leave. For the most part, those who are opposed to the mine are the ones who have been willing to talk to me.  I have spoken to the Pebble Partnership on several occasions, and there have been promises of interest and access, but in the end, they have never delivered. In my writings, I have explored various aspects of the region by telling stories about people and ways of life, or exploring various controversies related to the Pebble development.  Again, it is really difficult just to have a conversation out here without it eventually leading to Pebble.

As I have said on more than one occasion, my goal is not to tell an anti-Pebble or pro-Pebble story, but a pro-Bristol Bay story.  Telling a slanted story in favor of or against isn’t interesting; but telling about the way of life and talking about the controversy of the issue and how it is shaping the region; that is interesting to me.  I am not there to argue, debate, or impose my views.  No, I am there to learn. I can’t learn if I impose my will.  And along the way, I have learned many wonderful things and met incredibly generous people.  And it is that learning that I want to keep on doing. To those who are defensive about Pebble and have been hostile to me, I’d still love to talk to you to learn about how your uncle taught you to hunt, how you learned about processing fish from your grandmother, or how you learned what plants are edible and how to prepare them.