“You’re Not Pro-Pebble, Are Ya?”

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: www.bristolbaypebble.com. 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.

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