The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
It was a reason to give thanks, an early holiday gift, a stocking stuffer that wasn’t a lump of coal. For those who have fought to block the Pebble Mine, the late November news that the Pebble Partnership’s mining permit was rejected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was a relief.
But those in the know realize that taking the battle and winning the war are not always one and the same. The proposed gold and copper mine, which critics have long argued could potentially very seriously harm Bristol Bay’s salmon runs, is temporarily comatose but likely not dead.
“We should all celebrate and be thankful today,” Brian Kraft, owner of Alaska Sportsman Lodge, said after the news broke, and then added a prophetic follow-up statement: “And get ready to achieve long-term protections next.”
And that’s the billion-dollar question that has always hung over Bristol Bay’s $1.5 billion salmon industry: Can Bristol Bay be protected permanently?
Following the Corps’ about-face from its initial environmental impact statement that would have approved a mine, Orvis president Simon Perkins said the watershed was “one step closer to being a protected American treasure that sustains local communities and industries and that outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy and experience for generations to come.”
Still, it should come as no surprise that the Pebble Partnership did strike back on Dec. 17, announcing its intention to appeal the decision after August 2020’s EIS appeared to get the project a step closer to becoming a reality. Pebble officials argue that the Corps’ conclusions about the mine’s potential damage to the Bristol Bay region are “contrary to policy,” they stated in a press release.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a finding this summer that Pebble would cause ‘significant degradation’ to aquatic resources in the project area, and on that basis issued mitigation requirements that were both extreme and unprecedented in Alaska,” said Ron Thiessen, president and CEO of Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Pebble Parternship’s managing company. “Although we believe the USACE’s ‘significant degradation’ finding to be contrary to law and unsupported by the administrative record as established by the EIS, we set out in good faith to meet their demand for in-kind and in-watershed mitigation at a very high and unprecedented ratio for Alaska – and after a tremendous amount of professional effort and investment, we did it.”
“For the USACE to summarily reject a (Compensatory Mitigation Plan) that is directly responsive to its requirements, to do it on the basis of what we believe to be largely minor and arbitrary deficiencies and without giving the proponent an opportunity to respond to those alleged deficiencies or otherwise amend its application is, we believe, without precedent in the long history of responsible resource development in Alaska.”
The now confirmed election of President-elect Joe Biden offers Bristol Bay another perceived ally, much like the commander-in-chief he served. But after the Obama-Biden administration’s protections were reversed by the Trump administration, the cycle returned to concern about the mine becoming reality.
The region’s Native leadership fired a post-Thanksgiving salvo that reiterated the importance of creating long-term protection for the Bristol Bay watershed.
“There is an urgent threat to Bristol Bay that must be met with urgent action,” said Ralph Andersen, Bristol Bay Native Association president and CEO. “Although we are relieved that Pebble’s permit application has been denied, our people must be assured that no matter the political winds, our way of life is protected from the threat of mining in our region. This commitment ensures that those who depend on Bristol Bay can continue building a sustainable future free from this threat.”
United Tribes of Bristol Bay president Robert Heyano said that Bristol Bay should be forever invulnerable to even proposed mining sites and the usual federal permitting process.
“Any protections that do not meet this standard are unacceptable,” he concluded. It would indeed be a game-changer, but keep in mind that as presidential administrations shuffle in and out of Washington, D.C., so do opinions on mining. Soon-to-be outgoing President Donald Trump hadn’t publicly condemned the Pebble Mine – his son, avid angler Donald Jr., did tweet his objection to the mine after he fished Bristol Bay with brother Eric – and has taken steps to authorize oil and gas drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite objections from conservationists and Alaska Native organizations.
So for now, all is quiet on the Bristol Bay playing field. But the game isn’t over and there are only so many quarterback kneel downs that can be executed before the opponents will get another series of downs to run their playbook.
“While it’s great that the Army Corps has denied a permit to the proposed Pebble Mine, Bristol Bay is far from safe. It’s imperative that one of President- elect Biden’s first acts be to restore Clean Water Act protections proposed by the Obama administration, which the Trump administration did away with after a closed-door meeting with Pebble’s CEO,” SalmonState executive director Tim Bristol said.
“The vital next step is codifying Bristol Bay protections permanently via legislation. People across the political spectrum have called for this incredible region to remain intact. We urge President-elect Biden and Congress to act swiftly and decisively to enact lasting protections for this one-of-a- kind American treasure, which is home to a vibrant Native culture, provides thousands of American jobs, and produces more wild salmon than anywhere else in the world.”
Kraft, the Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge owner, entertains clients from all over the world and every walk of life. Sharing the waters that bring anglers to his business with a mine would be bad for business. In a worse-case scenario, it could devastate Kraft’s livelihood.
“Thousands of us have looked forward to this day for well over a decade,” he said on Nov. 25, 2020. But there are still no guarantees every Nov. 25 thereafter will offer similar comforting thoughts. ASJ