Voices of the Peninsula: Alaska faces critical salmon habitat decision

  • By Mark Glassmaker
  • Wednesday, March 25, 2015 2:57pm
  • Opinion

What if someone told you your favorite salmon stream was better off as a coal strip mine? You’ll never be able to fish there again. But it’s OK. There are plenty of other streams to fish.

Imagine if that river was the Anchor or the Ninilchik or the Russian River?

The State of Alaska faces a historic decision in Upper Cook Inlet: should we reserve water in a stream to protect our wild salmon, or give the water to a coal company so it can dewater the stream and extract coal for China? The State will take public comments on this critical question until April 9.

In 2009, local Alaskans filed papers to reserve enough water in the Chuitna watershed for salmon to spawn, rear and migrate. The Chuitna watershed lies in Upper Cook Inlet, about 45 miles west of Anchorage, and it supports all five species of wild Pacific salmon. The Parnell Administration drug its feet until 2013, when a state court ordered DNR to process the Chuitna application.

Meanwhile, a coal company — PacRim Coal — filed competing claims for the same water, so it could take 100 percent of the water out of the stream, dig down 300 feet through salmon habitat, and strip mine the underlying coal.

This leaves Alaskans with a stark choice: wild, sustainable salmon, or coal for China? The outcome here won’t just impact the Chuitna watershed, or the surrounding fisheries in Cook Inlet. Instead, the State’s decision here will set a historic precedent across Alaska, and shape how we manage our natural resources for decades to come.

And let’s be clear: there’s no way to mine through salmon habitat — tearing up the geology and hydrology down to bedrock — and put it back the way it was before. There’s never been a successful restoration of salmon habitat after the type of intensive strip mining envisioned for the Chuitna watershed.

I have guided on Kenai River and surrounding waters for the past 24 years but my experiences on the Chuitna definitely stand out. Fishing this clear flowing Alaska River surrounded by lush forest and teeming with ocean bright king salmon is truly a unique experience; it’s the type of trip where you haven’t even made your first cast and you already feel like you’ve had a once in a lifetime experience.

When Fish Alaska magazine editor Troy Leatherman and I visited the Chuitna after heavy rains in 2009, our timing was perfect. The recent “flush” of high water had lured in many kings; they were super aggressive and their sides sparkled with iridescent chrome. This was just one exceptional day and Chuitna historically had a very dependable king run, leading it to be dubbed the “Kenai of the West Side.”

Unfortunately the Chuitna River is now closed to all king fishing due to low escapements and has been for several years. With king salmon runs dangerously low all over Cook Inlet, I think we should be doing all we can to be responsible and ensure the health of our king fisheries over the long term.

That’s why it makes no sense to give the water in a salmon stream to a coal company. If we manage our resources properly, our wild salmon will thrive. Sacrificing fish habitat for irresponsible resource development is a precedent we do not want to set.

All mines are not bad. The Usibelli coal mine in Healy is a great example and it doesn’t impact salmon habitat. A coal strip mine that destroys a salmon stream is not worth the short term gain.

Alaskans can weigh in on this historic decision until April 9th. Please ask DNR (kimberly.sager@alaska.gov) and Governor Walker (governor@alaska.gov) to keep the water in the Chuitna watershed. The decisions we make today will decide how we manage our salmon tomorrow.

Mark Glassmaker lives with his family in Soldotna and has been guiding on the Kenai River since 1990.