The following report appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
BY CHRIS COCOLES
If anything else, the subplots, social media buzz and sidebars defining the 2016 race to the White House have been – what’s the right word choice here? – interesting.
It’s been an eccentric hodgepodge of drama, and, in some cases, comedy. Hillary Clinton and her email scandal and Chris Christie’s rise to GOP frontrunner and fall to disappointing flameout. Bernie Sanders’ cult status as Saturday Night Live’s lovable punchline with his kindred spirit/funny man Larry David making “Bern Your Enthusiasm” a pop culture thing. You have Marco Rubio pissing off Donald Trump, Fox News talking head Megyn Kelly pissing off Donald Trump and Trump pissing off everyone who doesn’t support his unlikely surge. Meanwhile, America is making fun of Ted Cruz every chance it gets, though at press time he was the only remaining viable challenger in The Donald’s path to securing the GOP nomination at the convention in July.
And there you have the major players to succeed Barack Obama. Super Tuesday 2 stamped Clinton and Trump as the runaway leaders and put them on a November collision course, but we digress. Whoever becomes POTUS No. 45, Alaskans would like to know what he or she thinks of the proposed Pebble Mine and the impact it may have on Bristol Bay’s wildlife and the region’s salmon, including the world’s largest run of sockeye.
Obama’s historic trip to Alaska last summer included a quick cameo appearance in Bristol Bay, where a spawning salmon left the president’s shoe with a rather messy souvenir. While the nut of his visit to the Last Frontier was to focus on climate change, Obama acknowledged the need to preserve the fishing industry there.
But it’s his successor who should have a much bigger impact on the region with regards to the Pebble Mine project. So a conglomerate of conservation groups, fishing lodge owners and guides and other companies – referring to itself as Sportsmen For Bristol Bay – sent a letter to all the major 2016 candidates, including Trump and Clinton (see sidebar on p. 48).
In part, the letter read, “We write to ask you simply: Where do you stand on the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska?” It seems like an easy question to answer, but given that the Pebble Mine and those concerned about the potential for a spill and the effect on Bristol Bay’s fish and wildlife have clashed for more than a decade now, the response is far more complex.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter. Protecting Bristol Bay has a bipartisan support,” Ben Bulis, president and CEO of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, said during a conference call last month. “We’re demanding that those running for president of the United States take a stand on the Pebble Mine.”
BRIAN KRAFT’S OFFICE where he spends every summer is far prettier than your average cubicle or work bench. Kraft and his wife, Serena, operate three Bristol Bay-area fishing lodges, Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge and Bristol Bay Lodge (888-826-7376; fishasl.com). Kraft, who joined Bulis and Dallas Safari Club executive director Ben Carter on the teleconference as the main speakers, has everything at stake if Canadian-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. does get the chance to mine Bristol’s rich copper, gold and silver deposits. Kraft said he first heard the words Pebble Mine in summer 2004, when he was first “thrust into battle on Pebble.”
“I noticed a bunch of helicopters flying throughout the area, and one of the locals who lived in a small village asked what was going on. We started asking some questions and discovered that there was a substantial mine (project) going in. I had no idea what mining was or what impact it would be on fisheries. And quite frankly, nobody in Bristol Bay did either.”
They know a lot more now, and a big assist for that should go to Kraft. After that initial understanding of what might be happening, Kraft created the Bristol Bay Alliance – “an educational effort to learn about mining – what it does and what its impacts are,” he said – and he’s been locked in ever since to help the lead way in the fight against Pebble Mine.
“What the people have discovered is that a mine of this nature cannot coexist with the fragile habitat that sustains the world’s largest wild salmon runs,” Kraft said. “All the things that my friends have talked about have another enormous impact on Alaska, and that’s tourism and the jobs that support the local economy. Twenty-nine thousand fishing trips each year and the wildlife attract (people) from around the world mean jobs in my lodges, jobs for Alaskans, jobs that are here year in and year out. All of that would be wiped away if we had a Pebble Mine.”
His lodges attract thrill-seeking outdoorsmen and –women from all over the Lower 48 and beyond, so he interacts with diverse groups with whom he can share his crusade to block mining from the lakes and rivers that are teeming with wild salmon. Of course, there are those dissenters who simply love the outdoors and can’t imagine such a place threatened by mining. But there are other doubters from less likely sectors.
“I have mining engineers who are customers, so there are ironically people from the mining industry that come up,” Kraft said. “And I had a mining engineer who told me, ‘Take me up there; let me see what this Pebble thing’s all about.’ I flew him up there and asked him for his insights and education on it. He got on the ground and kept shaking his head the whole time and just kept saying, ‘Too much water, too much water. It’s going to be a disaster.’”
Kraft reminded about what happened at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia, where in August 2014 millions of gallons of waste seeped into a salmon-rich watershed after a dam collapsed.
Earlier that summer, after the Environmental Protection Agency released a report that all but predicted catastrophe for Bristol Bay if the ecosystem is mined, Northern Dynasty replied, “We continue to believe the project must be developed in a way that protects clean water, healthy fish and wildlife populations.”
But the Mount Polley accident less than a month later raised even more red flags from Dillingham to King Salmon to Iliamna.
“And it can happen here. But it doesn’t have to if we act now,” Kraft said. “That’s why we are making this demand of all the candidates. The EPA now has acknowledged that this critical issue will be inherited by the next administration. So we want to know where the next president stands before they put their right hand on the Bible and take the oath of the office as the 45th president.”
SO WHAT’S NEXT for this issue? How fast will the next man or woman who Obama will pass the baton to act on deciding if mining Bristol Bay will be blocked or Northern Dynasty’s plan will proceed?
Sportsmen For Bristol Bay is adamant that it’s just a nonpartisan and nonprofit group that wasn’t formed to influence the results of what happens on Nov. 8. But as the letter states, it demands that the next POTUS take a stand one way or the other. The growing group includes both hunters and anglers, commercial fishermen and people like Kraft who share the bounty of his backyard salmon and trout bounty, plus the ubiquitous wildlife there.
“Southwest Alaska has been recognized as the top combination area for brown bear, moose and caribou for decades. It’s one of the last places on the face of the Earth with this kind of remote wilderness hunting, and allowing mining on this scale would end that experience forever,” Carter said.
“For a diverse community, we agree on some issues and disagree on some. But one thing that absolutely unites and galvanizes hunters and anglers is opposition to the Pebble Mine.”
Most of the presidential candidates had yet to publicly comment about the mine, but The Alaska Dispatch News reached out to each of the candidates and got a reply from Clinton’s campaign.
“Like President Obama, who protected Bristol Bay itself from consideration for oil and gas drilling, Hillary Clinton recognizes the incredible economic, cultural, and environmental value that Bristol Bay’s fishery and watershed provide to Alaska and the nation,” a Clinton spokesperson told the website. “And she agrees with the need to protect both the fishery and watershed from harmful mining activity.”
But for politicians, particularly in a typically contentious election year, talk is cheap. Northern Dynasty, despite some tumultuous turnover over the last few years, is digging in for a long standoff. Kraft, Bulis, Carter and those they speak for aren’t budging either. Whether Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or whoever’s left among the now longshot opposition can figure out a solution to this fight remains to be seen.
“This is not just an issue about the presidential election,” Bulis said. “Bristol Bay supports the planet’s best remaining wild salmon fishery, producing 46 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon. So this isn’t just about the United States; this is a global issue.”
Kraft, who has so much on the line if Pebble Mine becomes a reality and a Mount Polley-like disaster threatens what he has fought to preserve, and his colleagues have taken a positive approach to winning this stalemate. It comforts Kraft to host guests at his lodges who can’t believe the state of Alaska and federal government would permit mining in such a place (the letter references the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens’ comment about the idea of Pebble being “the wrong mine in the wrong place”).
“It reassures us that we are doing the right thing,” Kraft said. “It has been a long battle. We’ve been at this since 2004 and there have been many times when we’ve been down in Juneau and were in disbelief of some of the positions of our state politicians on this issue. But the (Native) people who live there, the people who have had thousands of years of heritage, understand better than anybody how dependent everything is on an intact ecosystem. They went to the federal government and said, ‘You’ve got to help us.’ Since that day happened, I’ve been on the side of, we are going to prevail.” ASJ
Sportsmen For Bristol Bay, which includes several fishing and hunting organizations, conservation groups and outdoor-related companies, penned this open letter on Feb. 25 to all the major 2016 presidential candidates, regardless of political party:
Dear Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump,
As organizations and companies that represent millions of sportsmen and -women and outdoor enthusiasts across all 50 states we write to ask you simply: Where do you stand on the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska?
For most of us, for most of the last 10 years it has been one of our organization’s and its membership or customer’s top-tier causes: stopping the Pebble Mine.
The late Sen. Ted Stevens called this project “the wrong mine in the wrong place.” For the last 10 years an unprecedented coalition of native tribes, commercial fishermen, anglers and hunters, conservationists, religious groups, restaurateurs and outdoor enthusiasts have been fighting this foreign-owned mine proposal trying to gain protections for the Bristol Bay region and millions of Americans who cherish eating, fishing for or making their livelihood off of wild salmon.
Our voices have been and will continue to be heard on this. Over 1,150 sport fishing and hunting groups and businesses have asked for Bristol Bay to be protected. Hunters and anglers were strongly represented in the over 1.5 million public comments supporting protection for Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine.
Bristol Bay supports one of the planet’s best remaining salmon fisheries, which at an average run of 37.5 million fish, produces 46 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon. On top of the incredible number of sockeye salmon, the watershed supports Chinook salmon, coho salmon, rainbow trout, grayling, and char, all of which are prized sportfish that result in more than 29,000 fishing trips per year. In addition to world-class fisheries, the area is also home to high densities of brown bear, moose, caribou, waterfowl, and ptarmigan that attract hunters from around the world.
From an economic perspective, sportfishing, hunting, and eco-tourism alone generate more than $160 million in local economic activity, creating nearly 2,500 local, sustainable jobs. The proposed Pebble Mine would create only about 1,000 temporary mining jobs while threatening 14,000 commercial and recreational fishery jobs in a $1.5-billion annual salmon fishery that can last indefinitely.
Pebble Mine will wipe this all away.
Simply put, places like Bristol Bay are extremely rare and extremely valuable. Millions of our members and customers across this country are asking you to stand with us in stopping this mine in this place.
Where do you stand?
Sportsmen for Bristol Bay