More than 300 hunter and angler groups are asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to withdraw 1.1 million acres of federal lands near Alaska's Bristol Bay from new mining development, concerned that runoff and other mining impacts could affect one of the most productive fisheries in the country.
In question is a Bureau of Land Management segment covered in a resource management plan for the bay completed late last year. While mineral development was barred on the 1.1 million acres for more than three decades because of unresolved land claims, the management plan released just two months before President Bush left office recommended opening the lands to new development.
The lands covered in the RMP are close to the proposed Pebble Mine, a giant gold, copper and molybdenum deposit on state lands. Environmentalists have worked to block Pebble Mine amid fears it could lead to the industrialization of Bristol Bay at the cost of its pristine watershed.
But in a letter sent to Salazar on Aug. 25, the groups argued that new mining in the RMP lands would also adversely affect the bay and nearby watersheds, including two of the world's most productive wild salmon rivers, which help feed a fishery that generates approximately $360 million per year for the local economy.
"Unfortunately, the current RMP fails to account for the natural values in this area and unnecessarily jeopardizes a world-class fishery and sporting destination," states the letter signed by groups including Trout Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation, the Federation of Fly Fishers and the American Sportfishing Association.
The groups want the Secretary to bar new mining development while the BLM works to revise the RMP.
Trout Unlimited Chief Operating Officer Chris Wood said the lands are still protected from new mining activity due to pre-existing land withdrawals, and there are no existing mining claims within the bay RMP. But that could easily change if Interior decides to heed BLM's recommendation.
"Our concern is there is a very thin line between maintaining these lands as pristine and allowing them to turn into a mining district," he said. The only way to ensure Bristol Bay's fisheries and wildlife habitats are protected, Wood said, is for the Interior secretary to exercise his authority to withdraw and segregate the lands covered under the RMP from new mining development.
Salazar used this authority last month when he placed a two-year hold on leasing on federal land near Grand Canyon National Park while the agency studies the environmental effects of hardrock exploration and mining. Depending on the results of those studies, Interior could extend the withdrawal for up to 20 years.
Teresa McPherson of BLM's Anchorage field office said that while the RMP recommended opening up the 1.1 million acres to possible mining development, the Interior secretary would still have to revoke the existing land withdrawals that are currently protecting the lands before mining companies or other development interests could begin making claims within the RMP. "It's the secretary's purview at this point," she said.