As Alaskans, we have a home to be proud of. We have more land per capita than most other inhabited places in the world and our land and waters provide food and livelihoods for those Alaskans who wish to harvest as well as many outsiders who are drawn to the mystique of the wilderness experience. An experience that is becoming harder to find in our developed world, and one that is becoming invaluable for providing therapy and tranquility to the modern mind. We are at a pivotal place in time where the decisions about land use, resources, and development will not only impact our own future and the future of our state, but also the lives of countless humans who will inhabit this place after we are gone. We have a responsibility to pass down the opportunity for future generations to live from this land.
For many that came before us, it was not a choice to pass down subsistence ways to their descendants; rather, this teaching was the first and foremost survival tool for humankind. The technological revolution made life for humans easier in some ways and more complex in more ways, and the lessons of time have taught us that even with the best intentions in mind, we don’t always make the best choices. As a result of human development choices since the late 1800’s, most of the wild salmon habitat in the Lower 48 and around the world has been depleted. This means that many people around the globe no longer have the option to go down to their local creek to catch dinner. They must rely on other people and other places to provide for them, and Alaska is one of those places that provides. Bristol Bay alone provides something close to 100,000 tons of wild salmon protein to the world annually, by far the biggest supplier.
We are all plenty familiar with the threats that the proposed Pebble Mine brings to the Bristol Bay region. Thousands of concerned citizens have submitted public comments, campaigned for the salmon, even passed a vote for more protections in the region. Still, the fight continues. We have just completed our fourth public comment period on Pebble, leaving many residents wondering how many times they have to say, “Not here, not ever.” While I personally am still thankful that my opinion is being considered yet again, the past several years have brought confusion, flipflops and questions of how much input Alaskans have when it comes to managing our land and resources. The proposed Pebble Mine has taught us many lessons over the past decade. With the biggest lesson being that we as a state just don’t have the regulations in place to protect the biggest wild salmon producer on the planet, even though most of us agree it deserves to be.
Bristol Bay is far from the only remote Alaska wilderness that is potentially on the verge of a whole new ecosystem as a result of resource extraction. Since the Gold Rush of the late 1890’s, gold has been a leading economic driver of the state. Gone are the days of pickaxes and sluice boxes — new technology in the mining industry is opening up opportunities for very fine particles to be extracted from vast landscapes. This new technology comes with a price, toxic chemicals must be mixed in to separate the gold, open pits are dug to reach the materials and there is always waste. It seems, foreign owned mining companies are the ones up for the task. Both Pebble and Donlin are the two biggest gold projects on the horizon (potentially being the world’s largest), and if they make it to the production phase, Canadian companies will be digging up Alaskan gold. As it stands, there is no way for these companies to access the gold without major impacts to the entire ecosystem of these places; the land, water and air will all be impacted to some degree.
The modern mining companies and their partners make bold promises. The Calista Corporation says they chose land to have mined “to provide economic opportunities for the region while safeguarding our resources for future generations.” The mining company they chose was Donlin Gold “because we trust they will do it right and we have confidence that the government agencies responsible for permitting will insist that it is done right.” To further validate their promises of stewardship the company “welcomes public scrutiny of our project because we want to protect our environment.” Who can argue with that? The very best intentions are in place. Whose job is it to ensure their promises are kept?
That is the very intent of the new initiative, Stand for Salmon. While the name is new, the concept has been brewing for decades. The people behind the initiative are not opposing mining or economic opportunity. As long as the development is not done at the expense of a renewable resource that has been a staple to sustain human and wildlife for thousands of years. We are all impacted by the development choices of our generation and its time that we all take responsibility. Stand for Salmon can allow citizens, companies and government agencies to all work together and ensure that the best decisions are being made, and holds everyone accountable. We, as citizens have a responsibility to get informed about projects, and practice our rights to vote and voice concerns on development. Development companies (foreign or domestic) have a responsibility to uphold their promises to us as citizens and to integrate public input into the projects. Government agencies have a responsibility to make unbiased and fair decisions that are truly good for the long and short future of humanity. Who can argue with that?
Some are already trying. Five mining companies have already contributed well over a million dollars against Stand for Salmon. None of these companies are Alaskan, four of the five are foreign owned and three are Canadian. The opposition has coined their campaign as Stand for Alaska. I’m sure there are a more than a few real Alaskans who might take issue with these facts. Can Alaskans not stand for themselves anymore? Seems to be exactly what these mining companies are aiming to achieve.
Monica Zappa is a commercial fisherman and dog musher who lives in Kasilof.