Some Quick Thoughts About Bristol Bay Protections

When the news broke that the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was implementing more permanent protections to the Bristol Bay Area, we scrambled to get something newsy into our February issue. I was planning to listen to a press conference and had plenty of news releases I could create a quick story to beat our press deadline, but we opted to just write the monthly Editor’s Note on the massive news that a fight that has been going in for more than two decades has swung in favor of those who want to preserve Bristol Bay’s salmon runs and not risk a catastrophic failure by the proposed Pebble Mine.

We’ll have more reaction to both the EPA’s decision to all but kill the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay and the return of Roadless Rule protections to the Tongass National Forest in our March issue. But here’s the Editor’s Note we sneaked into our February magazine:

I remember in January of 2014, just a few months after I started my now almost decade-long stint as editor of ASJ, I stood in a parking lot on a sunny but bitterly frigid day at Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal. It was an educational experience I continue to learn about in 2023.

The event that took place that day, a Stop Pebble Mine rally, featured impassioned speeches from Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Bristol Bay commercial fisherman Brett Veerhusen, and others. Their objections to the Pebble, the proposed gold and copper mine, has carried on throughout my almost 10 years on the job, and the fight has appeared throughout the pages of this magazine, our website and social media pages.

And on the last day of January, just as we were sending this issue to press, the Environmental Protection Agency released its Final Determination with the intention to implement Clean Water Act protections on the Bristol Bay region for good.

“EPA issued a Final Determination under its Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authority to limit the use of certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed as disposal sites for certain discharges of dredged or fill material associated with development of a mine at the Pebble deposit, a large ore body in southwest Alaska,” the EPA said.

“After extensive review of scientific and technical research spanning two decades, and robust stakeholder engagement, EPA has determined that certain discharges associated with developing the Pebble deposit will have unacceptable adverse effects on certain salmon fishery areas in the Bristol Bay watershed.”

The EPA further reinforced that discharges of “dredged or fill material to construct and operate the proposed mine site alone would result in the permanent loss of approximately 8.5 miles of anadromous fish streams; 91 miles of additional streams that support anadromous fish streams; 2,108 acres of wetlands and other waters in the (South Fork Koktuli River) and (North Fork Koktuli River) watersheds that support anadromous fish streams.”

As you would expect, the pushback from those Pebble proponents mean the debate won’t simply go away right away despite this latest development that, for now, kills the project. Pebble Partnership, the parent organization behind the mine, stated it would likely pursue legal action from what it calls “the EPA’s preemptive action against Pebble.” (In a statement, longtime Pebble Mine supporter Mike Dunleavy, Alaska’s Governor, said, “Alarmingly, it lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or non-mining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams. My Administration will stand up for the rights of Alaskans, Alaska property owners, and Alaska’s future.”)

On the day the EPA’s Proposed Determination was released, I sent emails to filmmaker Mark Titus (The Breach, The Wild) and Trout Unlimited’s Marian Giannulis, praising them and others for their tenacity during this extended saga. Both offered up emotional replies of gratitude for this moment. But I keep thinking about Hurley, whose Yup’ik people have relied on Bristol Bay’s salmon to sustain themselves and be their lifeblood for generations, and her resolve she showed me that day in Seattle so many years ago. Hurley was among those who spoke at a press conference on Jan. 31.

“Many of those who began the battle are no longer with us. New generations of our people have been born and raised with the cloud of Pebble hanging overhead,” she said, adding that so many people have worked to “defend the last great wild salmon fishery left on the planet. Today’s announcement is historic progress toward that goal.”

And we’ll continue to report on this fight that’s so meaningful to Alaskans and so many more. -Chris Cocoles