Two developments in the ongoing controversy over the proposed Chuitna coal project are expected to happen soon after one another. In the first weeks of February, a decision will be announced from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources on whether or not the anti-mine Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition will be awarded instream flow water rights for Middle Creek, a Chuitna River tributary which the CCC says will be destroyed by the coal mine proposed on the western Cook Inlet site. On February 3, a documentary about the Chuitna region and its inhabitants will have its Alaska premiere at Kenai’s Triumvirate North Theatre at 6:00 p.m.
The half-hour documentary “Chuitna: More than Salmon on the Line” was produced by environmental activist group Alaskans First with funding from outdoor equipment maker Patagonia.
Producer Sam Weis of Alaskans First described the documentary’s origins.
“There were a few of us who thought, ’how can we have more people feel connected to the place?’ Chuitna’s not a very easy place to get to. So we wanted to bring people to the Chuitna River through the power of film.”
Portland, Oregon-based filmmaker Trip Jennings directed and shot the half-hour film in the western Cook Inlet villages of Tyonek and Beluga, and on the Chuitna river itself. Since the 2006, the Delaware-based mining company PacRim Coal has considered the region for the site of a prospective surface-mine, provoking controversy over the habitat that anti-mine activists say it will destroy, in particular the salmon breeding grounds of the Chuitna and its tributary system.
“More than Salmon on the Line” premiered on January 16 at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, California , where it was selected to be part of a tour through 144 cities in the lower 48. The Chuitna anti-coal campaign is also conducting an Alaskan tour of the film, which will include twelve free showings in cities around the state.
After the end of the Alaskan tour, the film will be available for online streaming.
Jennings said that the documentary portrays the personal connections of the region’s inhabitants to the threatened salmon fishery.
“Anytime, you’re talking about a resource that’s at such risk as salmon in the Chuitna, sometimes you just have to go fishing,” Jennings said. “You have to get out there and experience it. So basically we went on a fishing trip.”
Weis said that the film “highlights a number of conservation-minded fly fisherman who travel over to Chuitna to fish, and also to meet with the locals who are fighting PacRim’s proposal to mine directly through the salmon stream.”
Chuitna region inhabitants featured in the documentary include commercial set-netter Terry Jorgensen, Tyonek village cheif Al Goozmer, and Julie Heilman, a resident of the approximately 50-member village of Beluga, who said that she lives about “nine miles, as the crow flies,” from the Chuitna River tributary Middle Creek.
Heilman is a founding member and current president of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition, a group that in 2009 filed three applications with ADNR for instream flow reservations of the water of Middle Creek. An instream flow reservation is a type of water use permit granted to protect the value of water in its native body. In the case of Middle Creek, the value Heilman hopes to protect is salmon habitat.
“If this river is dug up, that’s setting a precedent for the whole state,” Heilman said.
Between the CCC’s submission of the instream flow application in 2009 and October 2013, DNR held the application without beginning its decision-making process.
In 2011, PacRim Coal filed with DNR for a temporary use permit on the same body of water, which was granted in 8 days.
In a February 2013 lawsuit, CCC successfully appealed and suspended PacRim’s temporary use permit. Later that year CCC brought a second lawsuit against DNR and its then-commissioner Dan Sullivan regarding the agency’s inaction on CCC’s instream flow applications.
The result was a ruling by 3rd District Court Judge Mark Rindner that DNR must begin adjudicating the instream flow reservations within 30 days after the ruling was delivered on October 14.
In February 2015 DNR is expected to release its decision about whether the water of Middle Creek will be legally reserved from interference by mining.
Weis said the proximity of the decision to the documentary release was a coincidence, since the documentary was planned long before Alaskans First knew the decision’s time of release.
“We really wanted to start raising awareness of Chuitna this year because it’s likely that we’re going to see a public commentary nationally on that proposal within the next year,” Weis said, referring to the draft environmental impact statement on the Chuitna project that federal government agencies plan to release by late 2015, which will be subject to a 30 to 90 day public comment period.
“It just so happens that (the instream flow decision) is going to drop at a similar time , which is good because it gives Alaskans an opportunity to come out and see the film, and also take action at the same time.”
The documentary concludes with the same encouragement, providing a number to which viewers can send a text message that will add them to the anti-coal campaign’s contact list.
Weis said that members of the list will receive text message notifications at “major moments of the campaign.”
“Once they issue public notice on the draft environmental statement and open up that 30 to 90 day comment period, we need literally hundreds of thousands of people across the country to take action,” Weis said. “And because we have a limited time window, it’s important that we have a quick way to get a hold of them. That’s why we’re going with the text messaging.”
Heilman said that she expects the documentary to be effective in publicizing the Chuitna anti-coal movement.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the ripples go out from this,” Heilman said.
“We’ve gone to sports shows and stood there and told people this, and handed out brochures and stuff. But pictures are worth a thousand words. And when people see what a beautiful area this is up there, they’re going to say, ‘no, we don’t want this here.’”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org