The Bristol Bay drainages are Alaska's biological heart. They produce the state's largest and most valuable salmon fishery, more than 40 million sockeye salmon last summer – one third of the world's total. Five species of Pacific salmon spawn and rear in the rivers and lakes that feed Bristol Bay, and tens of millions of these fish return annually. Despite the tremendous value of Bristol Bay's commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries – estimated at more than $320 million annually -- the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) could squander this renewable resource unless Alaskans speak up. Trout Unlimited and the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association have joined a lawsuit brought by six federally recognized Alaska Native tribes to prevent DNR from doing exactly that. DNR's land management plan, known as the 2005 Bristol Bay Area Plan, applies to 12 million acres of state land in the Bristol Bay watershed and has, in effect, traded habitat protection in favor of hard rock mining. The agency released the Plan in 2005, under the administration of Governor Frank Murkowski. The lawsuit alleges that numerous legal deficiencies exist in the Plan. But the most egregious is that the plan makes mining the designated primary use of the land, and it reduces the area classified as habitat by 90 percent. Bristol Bay watershed to become a hard rock mining district without the environmental protections necessary to preserve the wild salmon resource.
Under DNR's 2005 Plan, mining companies have aggressively targeted the Bristol Bay drainages. More than 1,000 square miles of land are now covered by mining claims. It's been a frenzy of claim-staking not seen in Alaska in modern times. Many of the claims are on land crisscrossed with lakes, rivers and streams that produce not only copious volumes of wild salmon, but trophy rainbow trout and other sport fish that draw anglers from around the world. The biggest project, and most worrisome from our standpoint is Pebble, the huge gold and copper prospect that foreign-owned mining companies want to develop into one of the world's largest mines.
Pebble's monumental size would decimate vast stretches of spawning habitat. The sulfide nature of the ore body means that it will generate acid mine drainage which will seep into the surface and groundwater and kill fish. Pebble will generate billions of tons of toxic tailings. The toxic wastewater will have to be contained and treated into perpetuity. Mining companies are notorious for going bankrupt after extracting the targeted minerals from the earth, leaving taxpayers to pay for expensive cleanup, containment, treatment, and the loss of habitat and salmon. None of these risks are acceptable in Bristol Bay.
Together with the tribes, TU and AIFMA are suing DNR in an effort to compel the agency to set aside the current the Bristol Bay Area Plan and produce a new plan that will insure that our habitat and salmon resources will be protected for future generations. Area plans like the one for Bristol Bay have 20-year lives. Bristol Bay, its drainages, fish, wildlife and the people who depend upon them don't have two decades to suffer the consequences of DNR's blunders. If you support fish and wildlife in Bristol Bay, write to Gov. Sean Parnell and your Alaska legislators and tell them that you want a Bristol Bay Area Plan that respects the region's world-class fisheries and wildlife, one that doesn't sacrifice these renewable resources for a mine with a 50-year shelf life and a toxic legacy.