Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine (Part I)

Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine (Part I)

As you may know, I am delving into a book project exploring the Bristol Bay and Pebble Mine controversy.  This is a four-part blog post exploring the issues and this project.

Part I: Setting the Stage

The Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska is rich with seven river systems that provide incredible habitat to a variety of wildlife and fish, notably salmon.  But people in the region fear the development of a massive gold and copper mine at the headwaters of two of those rivers, a development known as the Pebble Mine.  So much of the discussion about the Bristol Bay region and the proposed development of the Pebble Mine focuses on the future.  In order to understand the issues, however, you need to first look to the past.

It is a cold November day in 1955 on the banks of the North Fork of the Koktuli River, the headwaters of the Nushagak watershed, one of the major steam systems feeding into Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska.  Snow has been building for over a month, forcing caribou to migrate, bears to den, and the last of migratory fowl to take off for warmer habitats to the south.

Below the surface, deep in the hyporheic zone, where groundwater and surface water mix, salmon eggs take advantage of the protective reaches of gravel and sand for protection from the onslaught of winter.  They are yet another generation of sockeye salmon, part of a race that has become genetically-adapted to the rich, pure waters that have provided them a stable environment for thousands of years.  On the surface, an artesian spring flows over the ground, creating a rare dark mark in this vast, white land.  The seep is one of dozens in the area, highlighting the intense connectivity between the surface and ground waters in the area.

Several hills and low valleys to the southeast, a Dena’ina Athabascan elder is taking his grandson out to hunt for caribou near the Upper Talarik Creek, passing on traditions that have been part of the Native heritage for thousands of years.  It is not yet time to set the trap lines.  Downstream to the south, in Lake Iliamna, the only population of freshwater harbor seals in the world are waiting for the ice to form so they can give birth to their pups.

Almost a hundred miles downstream to the southwest, on the edge of Bristol Bay, Violet Groat (see blog post “A fishing family”) is beginning her 50+ year career in the commercial fishing industry, working as a winter watchman at the Bumblebee Cannery in South Naknek.  The commercial fishing industry has just suffered through another devastating year of losses due to mismanagement by Outside salmon packers who still had powerful sway over federal fishery managers, and the resulting collapse of the commercial fishery. For that decade, the Alaska salmon runs were declared a federal disaster.

At the same time, a man stands before a gathering of delegates at the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks to present his opening remarks to the Alaska Constitutional Convention.  E.L. “Bob” Bartlett rises to speak to the gathered delegates, determined to form a new state, join the partnership of the Union, and create a framework for protecting Alaska’s resources.  During his speech, he addresses the value of Alaska’s resources and vows to ensure that Alaska’s resources will be used to the benefit of all Alaskan, not just to enrich the Robber Barons. He and others work to ensure that the days of the decimation of Alaska’s great fisheries and extraction of minerals by Outside interests – interests that left behind the abandoned Kennecott Copper Mine – will not happen again:

Alaska’s tradition of “boom and bust” communities is due in no small measure to the hard, cold fact that mineral development was solely for the purpose of exploitation with no concern for permanent and legitimate growth. Alaska’s once great fisheries industry is traceable in great degree to this same attitude with its concept of ruthless plundering of a great natural resource without regard to the welfare of the mass of average citizens who make their living from the sea … 

Constitutional delegate Vic Fischer sits, listening with rapt attention, taking to heart the call to protect Alaska’s resources.  He would later serve on the committee that drafted the final language of the Alaska Constitution.  Most important among its provisions, Article VIII of that constitution would command future leaders to “provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.”  Little did he or the other delegates know that Bob Bartlett’s prediction that in fifty years these bold principles would be so put to the test as they are today in the Bristol Bay region.

Coming next: Along came a Pebble

One Response to “Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine (Part I)”

  1. Ground Truth Trekking Blog » Walking into Pebble Mine – from Obscurity to Ubiquity Says:

    […] – a photographer working on a book about Pebble. Check out his 4-part series on Pebble Mine: Where Water is Gold. in the tundra at the Pebble site – […]

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