Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

At the Coray Homestead

Thursday, August 15th, 2013
At the Coray Homestead

It’s a windy but relatively hot Saturday afternoon, and I am resting in a small lounge area in the dining hall at The Farm Lodge in Port Alsworth, Alaska.  The lodge consists of a main building with dining hall and several cabins of lovely wood construction. I am relaxing after yet another delicious meal. As the ladies in the commercial kitchen prepare for the evening meal, the constant drone of Christian music can be heard coming from the radio (presumably an iPod). While Port Alsworth is a generally religious, small community on the shores of Lake Clark in the preserve unit of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, this part of the community is particularly religious. After spending a day here following a weeklong backcountry trip in the Twin Lakes area of the park, I have come to get a taste of what a religious commune must feel like. Every meal is prefaced by a prayer. Everyone is really friendly in that mildly something’s-not-right kind of way, and everyone looks related to one another.  The largest building in the community is the church (except for the airplane hangar at one of the community’s two airstrips). Lake Clark Air, owned and operated by the same family that owns the lodge, discourages its customers from using their aircraft to transport alcohol.  And no alcohol is allowed in the dining hall.

I am waiting for the arrival of Steve Kahn, who is on his way via boat from the homestead he shares with his wife, Anne Coray. Steve is the author of “The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt.” Anne is a poet, and has published a few collections of her works, including “Bone Strings.” Together, they wrote the text for Alaska Geographic’s “Lake Clark National Park & Preserve.” While a float plane ride with Lake Clark Air would be the faster way to the homestead, they are not flying due to high winds on the lake. As the afternoon progresses, the winds die down quite a bit but Lake Clark Air still refuses to fly.  At one point, I hear a knock and a “Hello?” coming from inside the kitchen.  The ladies have long since finished their kitchen tasks and left the dining hall. I get up, go to the kitchen, and meet Steve face-to-face for the first time. Wearing a leather hat, bushy mustache and gear designed to protect the body from wind and rain, Steve is the kind of person you instantly feel comfortable around, like you have known him for years.  We gather up my gear and head down to his 18-foot Lund to load up and head out onto the lake.

Normally about a half hour ride, the stiff winds and frequent gusts, along with rolling, shifting swells, makes for a nearly hour long boat ride, interrupted frequently by jaw-jarring slamming of the boat’s keel against rising swells. Despite the nature of the ride, it is hard to avoid or miss the stark, raw beauty of the Lake Clark shoreline and surrounding mountains. We eventually make it to the shelter of the bay where Steve and Anne’s homestead is located.

Built in the early 1950s, the homestead sits on the western shore of Lake Clark, a short boat ride from the top of the lake, a frequent rally point for small aircraft traveling from Anchorage into the region. The youngest of four children when she was born, Anne joined this world in a small, one-room log cabin on the property in 1958.  I would have the pleasure of sleeping in that cabin during my three-night visit. That cabin has been joined by three other structures: Ann and Steve’s cabin, another cabin belonging to Anne’s brother Craig and his wife, who spend their summers at the cabin, and a third cabin in progress belonging to Anne’s brother David.

As the Van Halen song says, “I found the simple life ain’t so simple.” During my visit, Anne and Steve note that people who think that living off the grid in a wilderness homestead is something to do in their retirement years simply don’t understand the amount of work necessary to make it happen. After spending a few days with them and getting a taste of the lifestyle, I come to get a sense of how time consuming and physically tasking the lifestyle can be.

In order to build their cabin, Ann and Steve had to have the lumber shipped in from Anchorage.  While it was originally supposed to come by barge, due to a series of events shaped by weather and incompetence, they had to cart the wood from Port Alsworth to their homestead via dozens of trips back and forth in the Lund boat. Their cabin is heated by wood burning stove, which requires an abundant supply of firewood – firewood that must be cut, split, hauled, and stacked. For electricity, they use solar panels to generate power, but use it sparingly, only powering a marine radio (that is rarely used), a computer and the Internet (which are fired up only a couple of times a day), and the occasional bouts of music.  One evening we listened to a variety of Tom Waits selections while drinking their marvelous home-brewed beer. They do not use a washer or dryer (all laundry is done by hand), refrigerator (they use the nearby creek), or freezer for food (everything that is perishable that needs to be stored longterm is canned).  For ice, they have constructed a large wooden box filled with sawdust, harvesting ice from the lake in the winter using a chainsaw to cut large blocks for burial in the sawdust.  Then, to enjoy a G&T in the summer, you just push aside the sawdust, chip off some ice, and toss it in your glass.

In order to get fresh produce, Steve and Anne grow their own in an open garden and a greenhouse.  Strawberries, lettuce, spinach, bok choy, brocolli, bell peppers, and tomatoes are among the crops they grow, protected by fencing, webbing, and electrified wiring in order to keep out snowshoe hares, moose and bears.  For a garden fertilizer, they collect the carcasses of spawned-out salmon on the shores of Lake Clark in October and bury them whole in the rows where seeds will be planted in the following season. They also harvest wild edible plants, like “beach onion” or “wild chive,” which they preserve by soaking in olive oil and canning it, as well as an assortment of roots and berries that grow nearby.

Most of their protein also comes from the land. Lake Clark is fed by one of the richest sockeye salmon runs in the world.  Starting out in Bristol Bay, the sockeye swim up the Kvichak River into Lake Iliamna, then up the Newhalen River into Sixmile Lake, and then a short stream connecting to Lake Clark. By mid-July, their beaches will feature set nets extended out from shore anchors down the beach away from the cabin. Sockeye, already starting to undergo the metamorphasis of shining, silver ocean fish to reddish with green head spawning fish, will be slamming into gill nets, cutting short their thousands of miles of travel to spawn. These salmon will become the primary protein source for Anne and Steve, and dozens of other homestead residents on the lake, for most of the coming year. It is their concerns over adverse impacts to this primary food source that leads their opposition to the development of the proposed Pebble Mine.

But that is not all of the bounty that this wild land has to offer for Anne and Steve.  During my visit, they catch lunch and dinner using rod and reel for Arctic char and a floating hook and line “set” for lake trout.  In the winter, they can fish for those and other fish.  And then, about once every three years or so, they will hunt for moose – an animal large enough to provide them sufficient red meat to last for several years.

Not being familiar with this way of life, one may wonder, “What do you guys do out there?” This is a common question for Anne and Steve, who see their remote, wilderness home as a source of constant inspiration for their writing. But the daily tasks of simply providing for food and fuel can dominate the day and sometimes take away from time for writing. And then there are construction and rennovation projects. Dave’s cabin is slowly being built over the years. Steve and Anne have been working on restoring old, nearby cabins belonging to prior homesteaders. Nearby homesteaders, like their closest neighbor Bella Hammond, sometimes need some assistance.  Bella is, after all, in her 80s and still living mostly by herself at the homestead she built with her husband, former (and beloved) Alaska Governor Jay Hammond.

While the homestead life may not be for everyone, it is hard to not be inspired by their ingenuity, the products of their labor, and their connection with a land that so many have forgotten. After visiting with them for a few days, I vowed to come back for another visit; then not as a photographer documenting a book, but just as a visitor. I also became inspired to make more of my own 1.26 acres on the Anchorage hillside, envisioning how to turn a large patch of alder into a garden someday, expanding what Michelle and I have already begun doing with our greenhouse.

Togiak herring: the Other Bristol Bay Fishery

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013
Togiak herring: the Other Bristol Bay Fishery

If you read newspaper or magazine articles discussing commercial fishing in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska (or even watch the documentaries that are out there), all they ever cover is the sockeye salmon commercial fishery.  There’s a good reason for that.  The fishery provides 50% of the entire worldwide sockeye salmon supply. It brings in $1.5 billion in revenue a year and provides 12,000 jobs. But it’s not the only fishery, and not the first, either.

Well over a month before any fisherman puts his boat in the water to catch sockeye salmon, a small fleet of boats heads out from Naknek and Dillingham to the far western reaches of Bristol Bay to Kulukak Bay and the waters near the coastal village of Togiak.  Their goal: to capture herring as they are heading to their spawning grounds along the coast.  The herring are caught, frozen solid, and shipped primarily to Japan for harvesting of the herring roe.  The Togiak herring fishery is the second of three commercial herring fisheries in Alaska each year.  The first, and most well-known, is the Sitka fishery.  But as one Peter Pan employee I spoke to noted, the value of the Togiak herring fishery depends on the success of the Sitka herring fishery.  And this year it was not a good year for the Sitka fishery, opening up the possibility that the Togiak fishery, if successful, could be very profitable this year.

Commercial herring fishing is vastly different from commercial sockeye fishing, even though the exact same boat is often used in both fisheries.  The boat I was on, the F/V Megan Dee owned by Frank Woods of Dillingham, also operates during the sockeye fishery.  With sockeye fishing, the net is pulled up using a hydraulic “drum” and then the crew carefully picks salmon off the net and tosses it into the boat’s cargo hold. Quality and care of each individual fish is crucial for obtaining quality bonuses with the cannery.  With herring fishing, the main concern is volume, not quality. Rather than the crew picking the net of fish, a device called a “tumbler” that is attached to the front of the drum violently shakes the net as it is being pulled in in order to force the herring (and numerous bycatch species like yellowtail and flounder) out of the net and onto the deck.  The crew primarily ensure the net comes in straight and untangles any knots that may occur along the way, pushing the fish from the deck into the cargo hold using a wide metal broom-like device with a long handle.

Another difference between sockeye and herring fishing is the periods when fishing is allowed.  Commercial sockeye fishing is subject to periodic openings and closings, based on the amount of escapement (fish making it up the river) that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game monitors constantly.  Open periods are typically six hours long.  The length of time between openers can be hours, or days.  But with herring fishing, it is open until closed – a period that last several weeks. The only limits set during that time are those typically set by the processors, who start to lose the ability to keep up with the volume of herring being delivered.  With this year’s Togiak herring fishery, the processors started putting limits on daily catches as early as four days into the season.  One of the earlier limitations put in place was of only accepting 20 tons of delivery a day.

In the end, this year’s Togiak herring fishery turned out to be a profitable one for the commercial fishermen involved.  Both the seine and drift gillnet fleets harvested around 95% of their quota, for a total of approximately 29,000 tons of herring harvested.  By local media accounts, this was a near-record year.  Here is the full ADF&G summary for the season.

 

Provide Meaningful Comments to EPA

Thursday, June 27th, 2013
Provide Meaningful Comments to EPA

In the upcoming days, you will see a frantic flurry of e-blasts, Tweets and Facebook posts urging you to tell the EPA to stop the Pebble Mine, to “help save jobs” in the commercial fishing industry.  But these calls for action are not what the EPA is looking for right now.  Unfortunately, it has been a common problem during this process.

Last summer, the EPA conducted its first round of public hearings on the initial draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment, from Anchorage to villages along the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds. At each hearing, the EPA started with a presentation. First, the EPA explained why it was even involved in the issue. It was petitioned by a  group of Alaska Tribes to consider using its authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), to stop the development of the Pebble Mine.  Given the EPA’s ultimate permitting authority over all “waters of the United States,” this law would empower the EPA to make decisions over lands that were otherwise under State control. That section of the CWA gets at the heart of a crucial element of design of any sulphuric, hard rock mine that employs open pits – a “disposal site” commonly referred to as a talings pond or talings impoundment (Pebble’s would be massive).  It provides:

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.

Thus, under this authority, the EPA could decree that a fish spawning and breeding area could not be used as a disposal site for any waste rock from a mining operation if it would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on that habitat.  But the EPA could only do so after a notice and opportunity for hearing, and after consultation with the Secretary of the Army (yes, the Army, because of the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in wetlands management.)

Second, the EPA identified at these hearings the data it had relied upon in producing the draft watershed assessment.  It stated that it had relied on the environmental baseline information produced by the Pebble Partnership, and its predecessors, which had been conducting baseline environmental studies since at least 2006 (some 18 years after initial exploration began – hardly “baseline”). Similarly, the EPA relied on mine plans filed by Northern Dynasty with the Canadian government, giving a rough outline as to the type, nature and size of mine Pebble would be. It also included scientific data gathered by the State of Alaska, peer-reviewed research, and numerous interviews with Tribal elders.

Finally, it asked the public to provide input on anything that it may have missed.  Are there any studies or data out there that the agency missed? Are there any scenarios that were not considered? What sort of flaws were there with the agency’s methodology?

In response, the EPA mostly received comments at these hearings that were outside of the scope of what it was looking for.  “Why are you here? This is State land!” came one comment.  “Pebble has been out there studying the area for six years, you’ve only been here for one year, what do you know?” was another.  Clearly, these people had not listened to the presentation.  Many other comments centered around how the Pebble Mine would be good for jobs or would harm the fishery or subsistence.  Clearly, these people had not listened to the sort of feedback the EPA was soliciting.  This problem seems to be persisting today.

With post after post, and email after Tweet, I am seeing this pattern repeat itself.  A cadre of chefs have sent a letter to the EPA urging the Acting Administrator to stop the Pebble Mine. Trout Unlimited’s “Save Bristol Bay” Facebook page has been urging people to “Tell EPA to Protect Bristol Bay!” Earthworks, one of the more vocal nationwide organizations on mining issues, has been urging its members and newsletter subscribers to “Tell the EPA to use its Clean Water Act power and prohibit mining in the Bristol Bay watershed!” But these calls, while well-intentioned, are premature and simply not what the EPA is looking for at this time.

The EPA’s own page established for this watershed assessment clearly states the limited purpose of the assessment, noting, “The assessment will provide a better understanding of the Bristol Bay Watershed and will inform consideration of development in the area.” The revised draft assessment itself clearly states what it is NOT intended to do:  “As a scientific assessment, it does not discuss or recommend policy, legal, or regulatory decisions, nor does it outline or analyze options for future decisions.” So the purpose of the assessment is to outline the science that may guide a future decision; it is not designed to be a mechanism for making a decision in and of itself.

As to what the EPA is looking for, it clearly sets that out as well: “We’re accepting comments on the revised draft assessment until June 30, 2013.  We want to ensure that we’re using the best available science and that we’ve heard and considered all comments received in response to the May 2012 draft assessment.” So, to reiterate, has the EPA considered all the relevant science and has it considered the comments received during last summer’s public process. That’s it.  The EPA is not looking for your opinion as to whether the Pebble Mine should be allowed to proceed.  If you recall the language of Section 404(c), it can only refuse to authorize a discharge into important fish habitat after notice and opportunity for a hearing – such notice will not come until after it has completed its final assessment.  (There would be no public process if the EPA chooses not to assert its Section 404(c) authority.) And when the EPA engages in that public process, THAT would be a good time to opine about whether Pebble is a good idea. But that would not come until after the EPA has issued a final watershed assessment, and after it has announced a decision and scheduled a process for public input.

So, if you want to provide meaningful input to the EPA, not the kind of input that would go into the “Not Applicable” file, then go back to what the EPA is asking for.  First, the science.  Are there data, studies, research (preferably peer-reviewed) related to the fish spawning and rearing habitats of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers that the EPA has not considered?  For example, has Dr. Carol Ann Woody been out in the field lately and is her data included? Then, are there any potential impacts to that habitat the EPA has not considered?  For example, is the assessment’s focus on a catastrophic event – rather than the surface water and ground water pollution likely to result from normal, permitted operations – adequate? Or, has the EPA considered the impact of the use of mixing zones on salmon habitat? Second, go back and review the comments you submitted or that your organization submitted, and then review whether the EPA has addressed those concerns.  If it has not, then reiterate those comments and state how or why the EPA has not responded to them.

These public processes are important, and the unusual nature of this process has understandably left people confused as to what they should say, or where we are in the process.  It is a power that has been rarely used and lacks the predictability and certainly of any process conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Thus, the best way to take advantage of this unusual public process involving the Pebble Prospect (it has undergone virtually no public process in 25 years of exploration) is to give the agency what it is looking for.  Any comments outside of that scope will simply be ignored.

Go here to read instructions on how to comment on the EPA’s revised draft watershed assessment for Bristol Bay.

Kickstarter Campaign, Media Coverage

Thursday, May 30th, 2013
Kickstarter Campaign, Media Coverage

I recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to collect the funds needed to complete the fieldwork for my Bristol Bay book.  The funds raised will cover approximately eight trips out to the Bristol Bay region as well as some necessary equipment purchases.  Shortly after my return from covering the Togiak herring sac roe fishery, I was contacted by a reporter from KDLG, the public radio station for Dillingham, to talk about my project and the Kickstarter effort.  Listen to the story.

Perks start for donations as small s $5, so please take the time to visit the Kickstarter campaign page and make a contribution today.  Time is running out – the deadline on the campaign is June 19, 2013.  I only receive the pledged funds if I meet my minimum goal of $20,000 by that date.  Any excess funds raised will be applied to the design and production of the book.  Thank you for your help!

The commercial life of a sockeye salmon

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013
The commercial life of a sockeye salmon

When we order from the menu or purchase from our local grocery store, we rarely think about the process that goes into place to get that food on our plate.  I use the term “we” to refer to those of us who do not catch, shoot or gather most of our foods, like many in Bristol Bay. But knowing that story of how that food ends up at the grocery store or restaurant helps to explain how vital a successful sockeye salmon fishery is to the survival of the Bristol Bay region.

The precise steps vary from operation to operation, but in most cases, delivery of sockeye salmon to market goes something like this.  The first and most crucial step for Bristol Bay is that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G), after consulting the salmon return numbers, declares that there will be an “opener” for the Bristol Bay commercial sockeye salmon fishery.  ADF&G will establish a date, time and duration for the opener, as well as which districts are affected, and also identify what type of commercial opener it is – drift or set.  There are very strict rules with tough penalties if a commercial fishing crew jumps the gun on that opener.

Once the opener is underway, crews will work furiously to catch as much fish as possible during the window – sometimes only six hours at a time.  During that time, the fish are stored onboard the vessel in totes filled with ice – canneries will provide cash bonuses of a certain number of cents per pound if the fish is delivered at or below a certain temperature.  Very few fishing vessels have their own expensive CSW (chilled sea water) system, so ice is the norm.

Once the opener is closed, the skipper drives the boat to a waiting tender, typically at anchor in the mouth of a river near the district line location.  (There is at least one shore tender operator in Naknek that takes delivery from boats on the beach in the form of a truck with chilled totes.)  The tender takes delivery of the fish by lowering a crane with a hook and scale that lifts up the fish, bale by bale, and dumps the fish into the cargo hold of the tender.  As the fish is being transferred over, it is weighed and the ship’s catch is recorded.  Some canneries will have a quality control person on board the tender who tests a certain number of fish from each catch for quality and temperature.  When I was on an Ocean Beauty tender in the Ugashik District, the quality control person told me she was testing a pre-selected percentage of boats (approximately 45 vessels) and checking them for overall quality (no physical damage to the fish) and temperature (using a digital thermometer).  The observer also tagged approximately ten fish, with each tag indicating the date and time the fish was delivered, so that Ocean Beauty could then follow the fish all the way through processing to meet its own standards of how quickly the fish was processed and delivered.

Once on a tender, the salmon is chilled most often with CSW.  The amount of fish each tender can carry depends on the vessel.  I spent a couple of days on the tender Westward.  The skipper told me the Westward could carry 100 tons of fish in its lower hold, and an additional 40 tons in its uppper hold if needed.  But, it had been 5 years since the Westward had returned to port fully loaded.  It takes time to unload the catch from an opener, with dozens of boats lining up to deliver a catch that can range from 4,000 to 20,000 pounds.  Once the full opener’s catch is delivered, a tender will pull anchor and deliver its catch to the cannery – if the cannery is located on the same river.  If not, the tender waits until its replacement arrives, and then returns to port where the cannery is located.  For the more distant locations, a tender may be on station to receive salmon for up to 48 hours, and it can take several hours to return to the cannery.  For example, when I was on the Westward, I rode it from the Ocean Beauty docks in Naknek down to Ugashik, spent a couple of days on a drift boat (the F/V Chulyen), and then rode back with the Westward to Naknek.  Each way is approximately 80 nautical miles, and the cruising speed for the Westward is about 8 knots, making for about a ten-hour trip each way. 

Once back at the docks (each cannery has its own delivery dock), the salmon is delivered through large flexible tubes that suck the salmon from the cargo hold into the cannery for processing.  For the larger processers, this is an assembly-line process featuring dozens of workers, each assigned different tasks in handling the fish.  For smaller processers, like Naknek Family Fisheries, it is only a handful of people, including the owners, who individually process the fish for packaging and marketing.

Marketing and delivering to the ultimate market varies greatly, depending on size and product.  Some salmon is sold directly to consumers, while others goes through seafood wholesalers before ultimate delivery to a store or restaurant.  Again, with a smaller processor like Naknek Family Fisheries, they are able to personally handle quality, marketing and delivery. 

Then, eventually, we as the end users consume the sockeye salmon, which has undergone an amazing journey since its catch, a journey with no less drama than the lifecycle of the salmon itself.  With so many hands involved in the catching and delivery of sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay, it makes sense that so many are concerned about development of the Pebble Mine, which could put this very mainstay of Bristol Bay life in jeopardy.

New happenings with my Bristol Bay project

Thursday, December 20th, 2012
New happenings with my Bristol Bay project

While I have a few stories from field trips out into the Bristol Bay region I need to enshrine in this blog, there are some current developments that are worth noting. 

First and foremost, I have launched a new crowd funding effort on USA Projects. USA Projects is a program created by United States Artists (USA), a nonprofit grantmaking and artist advocacy organization that has awarded over $17 million to America’s finest artists in the last six years.  I was able to raise $5,000 earlier this year to fund fieldwork in Nondalton, Iliamna and Dillingham, as well as Seattle, Washington and Butte, Montana.  My new fundraising effort has a minimum goal of $6,000, which must be met by February 4, 2013 in order to retain those funds for my project.  If that goal is met, I will be able to earn as much as $40,000, the amount needed to complete all fieldwork for the book by September 2013.  You can visit the fundraising page, which includes an introductory video, and make a tax-deductible contribution.  One-to-one matching funds are currently available from the Rasmuson Foundation, so you can really maximize your contributions and get some great contribution perks!

Next, I will be on the Shannyn Moore Show this evening (December 20) to talk about my project!  Shannyn Moore has been very active in promoting the protection of Bristol Bay from harmful development.  As a former commercial fisherman and an avid angler, Shannyn has spent a lot of time out in Bristol Bay and has a lot of passion.  Plus, she’s just a hoot to talk to or listen to.  I am honored and excited to be able to appear on her show.  I will be on the air from 7-8 p.m. Alaska Standard Time (that’s four hours behind EST), so you can either listen locally on the radio at 95.5 FM or 1020 AM, or stream online.

Finally, for the last year, the main source of information about this project was the project Facebook page.  Soon, the dedicated website for the project, designed and produced by BuzzBizz Studios, will be available.  The graphic design for the site is complete, and they are creating the content right now.  Content will include a gallery, information about project partners, stills and video of scenery and wildlife, biographical descriptions of people in the region, as well as audio and video of people I have interviewed for the project.  This is going to be a gorgeous site and a fantastic resource for people who want to virtually experience what Bristol Bay is all about. 

More updates and stories will be coming soon, so stay connected!

Partnering with Lighthawk

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012
Partnering with Lighthawk

In 1998, I attended a conference about forest management issues in northern Minnesota. As the co-chair of the Environmental Law Society at the University of Minnesota Law School, I was interested in learning more about legal, policy and management issues related to timber harvesting on our public lands. The conference was a classic gathering of environmentalists, with participants sleeping in tents in a field, listening to presentations and panel discussions in large canvas tents. To further illustrate the tone of the conference, I met a bunch of people affiliated with Earth First!

I also encountered an organization I had not heard of before – Lighthawk. It is a nationwide network of pilots who lend their planes, skills and time to assist in covering environmental issues. Lighthawk’s mission is “to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight.” While a pilot is responsible for his or her own expenses – fuel, maintenance, and other costs related to the aircraft and certifications – Lighthawk provides support in the way of connecting the pilot with conservation partners and  flight planning and related logistics.  Lighthawk’s mission at the conference was to highlight clearcutting that was going on in the Superior National Forest. It’s almost impossible to see such cutting from the ground as the industry leaves “beauty strips” – buffers of untouched forest that hide the areas where cutting occurs.

Seven years later, I was living in Alaska, working as the official photographer for the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage. Lighthawk was in town for the conference to highlight the oil operations along the Swanson River, right outside of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. An editor from National Geographic was also along for the flight to view the Swanson River operations as a parallel to the potential for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  But at the time, this was a special trip for Lighthawk – there were no Lighthawk pilots based in Alaska.

Fast forward another seven years, and I was having an email exchange with the editor for my Bristol Bay book about potential project partners, particularly with regard to aerial photography. She asked if I had heard of Lighthawk, and I said yes, but did not believe that they operated in Alaska. So, I sent an email to Lighthawk and learned that they did. After a little bit of paperwork and some scheduling, along with a very favorable and lucky weather window, I was ready to go on an aerial excursion into the Bristol Bay region with Lighthawk.

My pilot, Tim Hendricks, flew a Cessna 206 Stationair. Based out of Colorado, Tim spends his summers in Alaska flying guided day and overnight bear tours over to Katmai and Lake Clark for Sasquatch Alaska Adventures Co. out of Homer. I met Tim over near the public fuel pump at Lake Hood – the first time I had ever flown a plane on wheels out of that location. I have flown many times with Rust’s Flying Service out of Lake Hood – in DeHavilland Beavers on floats. Tim was in his cockpit working on his log when I approached, and he came out to shake my hand, towering over me in a lean, tanned frame that stood at least 6’6” – I don’t know how he fits into the cockpit, I thought to myself. Instantly friendly and confident, with a broad smile, I knew we were going to have a great flight.

After a short taxi on the runway, we were headed south across Anchorage for a Turnagain Arm crossing.  Once over the Kenai Peninsula, we crossed west over Nikiski – in sight of its massive port and liquid natural gas (LNG) facility – and then over the Cook Inlet toward the Alaska Range.  Since this particular plane had turbo engines, which provided for more efficiency and power at higher altitudes, we simply crossed over the Alaska Range rather than following the typical route through Lake Clark Pass that most small aircraft follow from Anchorage to Iliamna.

I wanted to see if there were any salmon gathering at the mouth of the Pile River, which empties into Lake Iliamna, so I asked Tim to bring us on a low approach straight over that river.  I was also interested in the river because the proposed haul road for the Pebble Mine would result in a bridge being built over the river.  Michelle had on many occasions told me it was a beautiful river; she was right.  A combination of varying channel depths created by steady flows and flood highs, along with coloration from minerals naturally occurring in the soils and waters of the area created a luscious mixture of colors and silky textures that spread out away from the mouth of the river and well out into the lake.  We circled around a few times so I could capture the images I wanted.  During our second circle, I spotted one of Lake Iliamna’s most rare of residents – a fresh water harbor seal.  Lake Iliamna boasts the only such population in North America, and one of only two or three in the entire world.

We headed across Lake Iliamna, following the western shoreline, spotting isolated islands and white sandy beaches with lagoons along the way, making the landscape look more like the tropics than the far north of Alaska.  We passed the villages of Iliamna and Newhalen along the way, heading for the mouth of Lower Talarik Creek.  My goal was to follow the creek from Lake Iliamna and then head over to the heart of the Pebble exploration area.  Shortly after heading upstream, we saw something I had only hoped for – a creek littered with salmon-sized red shapes in the water; the sockeye were red and running.  We made several passes over the creek, spotting at least six bears at various spots, including a sow with two spring cubs.  I was only able to photograph two boars that were fishing in the middle of the creek.

We continued on up the creek, and then cut over near Sharp Mountain and headed into the heart of the Pebble exploration area near Frying Pan Lake.  There was an equipment staging area (sometimes referred to as “the camp,” but it is actually not used to house personnel), a few operational rigs, and other rigs that were either being set up or torn down.  We also flew over several sites where remediation was underway, and we noticed several metal poles in the ground marking capped drill holes.  There are over 1,300 holes in the area as a result of the exploration of the vast deposit.  It was challenging to circle around and capture the images I wanted because there were three separate helicopters operating in the area, hauling sling loads of equipment from the cargo staging area to the drill sites.  And since the helos did not utilize the standard air traffic communications frequency, there was no way to talk to them and safely coordinate our flying with their activities.  We just had to keep an eye on them.

After a while, we flew into Iliamna to refuel and take a break.  We had already been flying for three and a half hours; and while that time can go quickly, it can also wear on passenger and pilot.  Tim refueled the plane and we pushed it back to the side to have a tail dinner of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, apple and smoked & canned sockeye salmon from Naknek, courtesy of Aleut elder Violet Willson.  Before we knew it, we were rested and heading back out.

We did a few more circles around the Pebble exploration area – this time helicopter-free – and then proceeded down the South Fork of the Koktuli River.  It was my first time flying over the Koktuli.  Most of the aerial photos you see of the streams of the Bristol Bay region show rivers winding down with towering mountains behind them.  That is not how things look in this part of Bristol Bay.  Shortly after its headwaters, the Koktuli River sprawls out into a relatively flat plain between the hills and low mountains of the Pebble Prospect and the jutting mountains near the head of the Wood River and the area of Wood-Tikchik State Park to the distant west.  The other set of mountains in the area would be the Alaska Range in Lake Clark National Park and Katmai National Park to the east.

The Koktuli is in so many ways a classic Alaskan river.  It meanders across the tundra, working its way through patches of spruce.  It has numerous channels at some points and shows a history of changing course due to intense shifts in water flow.  It has several gravel bars that would make for great camping spots, and an assortment of debris – mostly stripped-bare spruce trees – littering channels and dry spots.  According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Anadromous Waters Catalog, it is home for all life stages of chinook, sockeye, coho and chum salmon as well as Arctic char.  We overflew a group of rafters a bit more than halfway down to the confluence of the Mulchatna River, which was where we turned around and started our way back to Anchorage.  A beautiful suprise of the flight was the confluence of the Swan and Koktuli Rivers, where we found two cabins and an incredible view to the north.

The visage of the Koktuli River would likely change with the development of the Pebble Mine.  It is estimated that Pebble would annually consume three times as much water as the city of Anchorage (population 265,000) in order to support its operations.  The Koktuli River would not only be a source of water for the mine’s operations, but the primary tailings pond would displace Frying Pan Lake, the headwaters of the South Fork of the Koktuli River, holding back its flows with a 700-foot high dam.   I could only wonder as I captured these images of the Koktuli River what it might look like after its flow volumes were impacted by the mine.

On our way back to Anchorage, we passed again over the Alaska Range and close to the summit of Mt. Redoubt, one of several active volcanoes in this stretch of the Alaska Range.  Behind the steam rising from its crater I could see another active volcano in the chain, Mt. Iliamna.  I hated to leave behind the wonderous views that this region of Alaska have to offer.  But, Tim and I made tenative plans to come out again in September before he headed back to Colorado, and I looked forward to a landscape altered by the golds, oranges and reds that will be covering the land as autumn progresses.

A Look at Historical Mines and Pebble

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012
A Look at Historical Mines and Pebble

Butte, Montana has a couple of distinguishing claims to fame; one controversial, the other, not so much.  What is controversial is that Butte boasts to being the headwaters of the Columbia River.  The Canadians and Wikipedia would sharply disagree, but state and federal government and non-profit websites point to Silver Bow Creek in Butte as the headwaters to the Clark Fork River, a “major headwaters stream” of the Columbia River.  Anyone who knows rivers knows that if you start with forks, you end up with the main body of the river sometime downhill. If you trace the Columbia River upstream from the Pacific Coast, you will note that it splits into several forks somewhere in Washington.  One National Park Service map doesn’t even show the Columbia River having any origins in British Columbia. 

But the other Butte claim to fame that is not in dispute is that it contains one of the most contaminated sites in the United States – the Berkeley Pit of the Kelley Mine.  The Anaconda Company broke ground on the pit in 1955, and by 1962 had removed approximately 4.4 million tons of waste rock, reaching a pace of 320,000 tons per day of ore and waste combined.  The company used large ore trucks called “ukes,” running them around the clock, seven days a week, at a rate of no less than 1,600 truckloads a day. The Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) purchased the pit in 1977 and ceased mining it by 1982 because it became less profitable.  In the end, the pit measured 7,000 feet long, 5,600 feet wide, and 1,800 feet deep.  During its 25 years of operation, 700 million pounds of waste rock were removed. 

The Berkeley Pit earned the nickname “The Richest Hill on Earth,” at least until copper prices began a precipitous slide in 1975.   

But digging an 1,800-foot deep pit in the ground was not without consequences.  The pit is located in an area with active groundwater movement.  During the life of its operations, the mining companies kept water out of the pit by using pumps.  When ARCO shut down the pit, it also turned off the pumps.  The groundwater that had been held back for decades returned, slowly filling the pit with a volume of 40 billion gallons.  And that water mixed with oxidized sulfides, commonly found with exposed copper deposits, produced a strongly acidic bath.  In 1995, 342 snow geese landed on those waters and were dead within two days.  Following ARCO’s claims that a fungus had killed the birds, a branch of the Montana Department of Justice examined the birds, noting corroded esophagi and tracheae, as well as bloated livers and kidneys.  In 2007, there was another incident where 17 snow geese, 10 mallard ducks, nine goldeneye ducks and one swan were found floating dead.

As I stood looking over the edge of the pit, standing on piles of waste rock heaped upon the hillside above, my nostrils bristled with the strong smell of sulfides.  The odor sometimes made it hard to focus on the task of taking photos.  I could only imagine what it would have been like for those snow geese.  I was very happy I was wearing some stout boots. 

The Berkeley Pit is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the United States, presenting significant water quality management challenges for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.  It operated under the Mining Law of 1872 and subsequent laws amending it, which essentially govern how to establish a mining claim.  The point of the law was to promote settlement and development of public lands in the West, and has left behind a scarred legacy.  According to the State of Alaska, the Alaska Constitution, article VIII, section 11 was modeled after this law.  Alaska Governor Sean Parnell even recently named May 10 “Mining Day” in honor of this law.  The Berkeley Pit also managed to shape its toxic legacy long after numerous water pollution laws were passed: the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972), Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), and the Clean Water Act (1977).  Montana’s own Water Quality Act was first passed in 1971.  Thus, despite numerous laws in place, the Berkeley Pit is an environmental disaster.  

In its May/June 2011 Pebble Partnership Newsletter, the Pebble Partnership touted recent tours with “stakeholders” of the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah and the Cortez Hills mine of Nevada as examples of how “mines operating under modern regulations are protecting themselves and the environment.”  The newsletter does not mention the Kelley Mine and its Berkeley Pit.  It also fails to mention that the Bingham Canyon Mine, owned and operated by the Kennecott Copper Company, had contaminated eight nearby sites, including several waterways and neighborhoods, by 1990. It is still under supervision by the EPA for cleanup in connection with the agency’s Superfund program.  The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has also been involved investigating and implementing cleanup of the mine’s contamination of the area.  The Cortez Hills reference is also interesting in that Barrick Gold of North America is moving forward with its expansion of that gold mine against staunch opposition from local Indian Tribes.  Neither of these points can be very reassuring to Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives, who are opposed to the mine.  Of course, neither of these two mines are situated in salmon spawning and rearing areas, or at the headwaters of a world-class sockeye salmon fishery.

 The Kennecott Copper Mine near McCarthy, Alaska, is also cited by the Pebble Partnership as proof of how copper mines and salmon can coexist.  The Pebble Partnership asserts that since copper was mined there a hundred years ago, and the Copper River enjoys strong sockeye salmon runs today, copper is not always harmful to salmon. 

 The Kennecott Copper Mine first went operational in 1911, when the first ore train hauled 70% copper ore from the mill town down to Cordova on the Prince William Sound, some 197 miles away.  (In contrast, the Pebble mine site is only 11 miles away from the Village of Nondalton, 15 miles from Lake Iliamna, and 130 river miles to Bristol Bay via the Kvichak River.)  The mill town of Kennecott, built near the lateral moraine of the Kennecott Glacier and five miles from the nearest river, is now a historical landmark and managed by Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.  The Kennecott Glacier creates the Kennecott River, which flows into the Nizina River, which flows into the Chitina River, which flows into the Copper River at the village of Chitina, approximately 60 miles away. The locations where the copper was actually mined were spread out among five mines at distances of up to nearly 4 miles away from the mill facilities, and up to nine miles away from the Kennecott River up in the mountains.  Only one of the mines, the Glacier Mine, was an open pit mine. 

 During its 27 years of operation, the Kennecott Copper Mine produced 4.625 million tons of ore with an average quality of 13% copper, which is considered a high grade ore.  The mine peaked in operations only five years after it started, and declining copper prices in the late 1920s eventually led to the mine ceasing operations in 1938. 

 There are several reasons why the Kennecott Copper Mine is not a good comparison, from a logical or public relations perspective, to the proposed Pebble Mine. 

First, the proposed Pebble Mine would be situated immediately at the headwaters, even displacing some of those waters, for Upper Talarik Creek (which flows to Lake Iliamna, which is the headwaters for the Kvichak River and flows into Bristol Bay) and the South Fork of the Koktuli River (which flows into the Mulchatna River, then the Nushagak River, and then Bristol Bay).  The Kennecott Mine had no hydrological connections to the Copper River, and its only open pit, the Glacier Mine, did not utilize a tailings pond like the Pebble Mine will.  The Pebble Mine would be also situated in the midst of an area that has extensive groundwater movement and connections between groundwater and surface waters.  It is not known what the connections were like at the Kennecott Mine, but the arid regions of Utah and Nevada certainly do not have the saturated grounds found out in Bristol Bay in the Pebble Prospect vicinity. 

 Second, salmon do not use the Nizina or Chitina rivers near the Kennecott mine for salmon rearing.  However, numerous streams and waterways in the vicinity of the proposed Pebble Mine site, including Upper Talarik Creek and the South Fork of the Koktuli River, are primary spawning and rearing habitat

 Third, one of the more significant distinctions between the Kennecott Mine and the proposed Pebble Mine is the quality of ore.  The average quality for the Kennecott ore was 13%, but the estimated concentration of the ore in the Pebble claims is 0.34%.  That leads to only 6.8 pounds of copper per ton of ore.  If the Pebble Partnership’s estimates of 55 billion pounds of copper are correct, the company will have to extract 16 trillion pounds of ore to extract the full copper deposit.  That’s over 2,000 times the amount of ore pulled out at Kennecott.  And that does not include the similarly-low quality of gold ore and molybdenum ore that the Pebble Partnership will have to extract in order to access those riches.    

 Finally, and this is the worst message the Pebble Partnership would want to project, the Kennecott Copper Company completely abandoned its facilities after worldwide copper prices crashed.  Kennecott Copper Company’s Robber Baron exploitation of Alaska’s natural resources is one of the reasons why Territorial leaders pushed to bring Alaska into the Union as a state – to make sure that never happened again.  If that mine is an appropriate analogy, then the residents of the Bristol Bay region can count on the Pebble Partnership to abandon the Pebble Mine and its facilities when it is no longer economically viable.  (For a more comprehensive comparison of these issues related to Kennecott and Pebble, read Copper River and Bristol Bay: A Comparison of Salmon and Mineral Resources.)

 The Pebble Partnership has also pointed to the success of sockeye salmon on the Fraser River in British Columbia as an example of how copper mines and salmon can co-exist, but that may not be a good choice for analogy, either.  There likely is no mine in Alaska that offers a fair comparison.  And maybe that’s the point. 

For a comprehensive analysis of water quality impacts on ten case studies of mining operations around the world, read Troubled Waters: How Mine Waste Dumping is Poisoning our Oceans, Rivers, and Lakes published by Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada.

 

Why Seattle has an Interest in Bristol Bay

Friday, May 11th, 2012
Why Seattle has an Interest in Bristol Bay

One of the newer outrages that Rep. Don Young, Congressman for all Alaskans who voted for him, has to face is the U.S. Senator from Washington, Maria Cantwell.  What has she done to incur his infamous wrath?  She has stuck her nose in the business of Alaskan resource management.  You see, one of Senator Cantwell’s main issues is sustainability of salmon populations and the fishing jobs they provide.  Not only has she been working to secure funding for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund – from the Columbia River to Puget Sound, salmon populations are struggling to recover after decades of habitat destruction due to natural resource development and urban pollution – she is working to support all intact, healthy salmon ecosystems in North America.  Why?  Because Seattle fishermen could use more jobs in their area and they own permits for commercial fishing in the Bristol Bay region.  She’s even become directly involved in the EPA’s Bristol Bay watershed assessment, which puts her in Don Young’s cross hairs because he has introduced legislation that would strip the EPA of its authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), to conduct such an assessment.   

Setting aside the political squabbles and power trips, there is a very real tangible connection between Bristol Bay and Seattle that warrants involvement from a U.S. Senator who represents Washington constituents.  When I was out in Bristol Bay last summer, I met three brothers from Seattle who each own their own drift boats and permits.  Like many permit holders, they spend their winters down in Seattle while their boats sit out the winter in Naknek.  When the time comes, they fly up to King Salmon and get their boats ready for another season of sockeye salmon fishing.  And then, sometime in mid-to-late July, depending on how good their season was, they catch a Pen Air or Alaska Airlines flight back to Anchorage and continue on home to Seattle.  According to the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, there are currently 742 drift gillnet permit holders (out of a total of 2154) for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon who reside in the Washington state.  That’s 34% of all Bristol Bay sockeye salmon drift gillnet commercial permits held by residents of Washington.  (Life is too short for me to look on a map and determine all of the towns and cities that are in the greater Seattle area and compare those names with permit addresses to give you a more accurate picture of how many permits are held specifically by Seattle-area residents.)   

And Seattle doesn’t provide just residency for permit holders, it also provides a vibrant consumer market ready to purchase and enjoy all manner of Alaskan seafood.  When I took an early morning stroll down downtown Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market, I saw a lot of fresh seafood – it’s truly one of the wonders of the place, along with the amazing selections of fresh flowers.  But I was looking at the seafood, because I wanted to see how important Alaskan seafood was to this market.  After passing up and down the full length of the market, I could guess that about half of all the seafood came from Alaska.  You could see large banners celebrating the coming Copper River sockeye salmon opener, other signs touting the clear, clean and fresh waters of Alaska and the associated quality of seafood that comes from it. When speaking to Kevin Davis, head chef and owner of the Steelhead Diner and Blueacre Seafood restaurants, he said that people come all over from the country to Seattle for its selection of Alaskan seafood.  A once-bustling seafood generator itself, the Puget Sound commercial fishing markets had collapsed over decades due to resource development and urban pollution.  No longer able to fish their own waters as much, Seattle fishermen had reached up into Alaskan waters and found a way to satisfy the strong demand for fresh seafood in Seattle.    And visitors responded, answering the call to experience seafood from the most pure waters remaining in the United States for sustainable commercial fishing.  

A Chef for Sustainable Fisheries

Friday, May 11th, 2012
A Chef for Sustainable Fisheries

Walking into the Blueacree Seafood restaurant in downtown Seattle, my photographic eye lit up at the incredible contours, lines, graphics and colors creating the atmosphere.  I was there to meet Kevin Davis, head chef and owner, along with being the owner of the Steelhead Diner just a few hundred feet up the hill from the Pike Place Market.   

I contacted Kevin as part of the fieldwork for my Bristol Bay project.  An avid fly fisherman, Kevin features a lot of Alaskan seafood on the menu at his restaurants.  He first heard about the Pebble Mine issue while watching the movie Red Gold. Since then, he has become a culinary warrior in the effort to inform the public about the proposed Pebble Mine, often partnering with Trout Unlimited as part of its campaign to stop the mine’s development. 

 One of the dominant features in the Blueacre restaurant is a large marlin.  One would think that a restaurateur who emphasizes sustainable fisheries would not have a marlin on the wall, but he placed it there is a reminder of how species are impacted by overfishing pressures caused by demands in the restaurant industry. 

 Kevin sees the development of the Pebble Mine as a threat to the sustainability of the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery, as well as the world class sport fishing represented at numerous lodges in the region.  At my request, he prepared a dish featuring a filet of Alaskan sockeye salmon, served with some vegetables and a glass of Pinot Noir.  I long ago envisioned a line of photos showing the progress from where a sockeye is caught in Bristol Bay waters to where it was served on a restaurant in Seattle – this completed the loop.  It was also incredibly delicious.   

When I mentioned to Kevin how many of the fish mongers at Pike Place Market were offering Alaskan seafood, he noted that Alaskan seafood is very important to the Seattle market.  Decades ago, the Puget Sound region had its own vibrant fishery, including Chinook (king) and sockeye (red) salmon, but it had been severely impacted by urban pollution and natural resource development, such as logging.  Seattle purchasers looked to Alaska to fill the gap, and now Seattle visitors go to Pike Place Market and various Seattle restaurants specifically looking for Alaskan seafood.