The time the President visited salmon country

President Obama during his trip to Kanakanak beach in Dillingham, Alaska.

Photo by: Bob Hallinen from Alaska Dispatch News

By: Jenny Lynes

Dillingham, Alaska is a town of 2,300, which sits on the shore of the salmon-filled Nushagak Bay in southwest Alaska. For the last decade, this community has been at the forefront in the fight over the Pebble mine as one of the largest of a host of remote Bristol Bay villages that would be affected by the massive proposed mining project. This Wednesday, Dillingham was honored to host the President of the United States for a brief visit. 

Naturally, most cities are excited when the President comes. However, in Dillingham’s case, it was different. Wednesday was the first time a sitting President had visited true “salmon country” in Alaska. What’s more, over the years Dillingham residents have made many requests of, and given many thanks to, the President. So it was no surprise that on Monday and Tuesday in preparation for his visit, the fishing community was buzzing. Nearly everyone in town set aside their political differences and had been busily hanging posters and banners with things like, “In Obama we Trust,” “Mines & salmon don’t coexist,” and “Welcome to Salmon Country.” And by Wednesday, the day of his arrival, it was positively electric. That morning, residents stood in the rain along the road from the airport to the small downtown and toward the beach waiting for a glimpse of the motorcade.
 
Bristol Bay resident in front of the President's welcome sign. Photo by Clark Fair from KDLG.
 
Two longtime friends of Trout Unlimited, whom we have gotten to know as we work along side them to help protect Bristol Bay from pebble mine over the last 10 years, Alannah Hurley and Katherine Carscallen, were at the center of it all. Alannah is the Executive Director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, and Katherine has fished commercially in Bristol Bay since childhood. Both of them are motivated to keep the salmon-filled experiences of their childhood alive and possible for their children and for many future generations. The town, state of Alaska, and even the nation have taken notice of their exceptional work. And now, so has the President.
 
Katherine Carscallen (far left) and Alannah Hurley (far right) with other Bristol Bay residents at Kanakanak Beach. Photo by President Barack Obama
 
Alannah and Katherine were among the few selected to show him subsistence and commercial fishing practices, and tell him a little bit about their way of life, and of course, about threats posed by Pebble mine. After a brief discussion and before President Obama headed to Dillingham middle school, he made a short remark from the beach about Bristol Bay saying,
"it’s so critical that we make sure that we protect this incredible natural resource, not just for the people whose livelihood depends on it, but for the entire country […]And it represents not just a critical way of life that has to be preserved, but it also represents one of the most important natural resources that the United States has.  […] It is too fragile, and it is too important for us to be able to endanger it in any sort of way.”
And with that, the day was solidified as a high point in the effort to protect Bristol Bay’s world-class resource from large-scale mines like Pebble. Until permanent protections for Bristol Bay are achieved, we’ll be able to look back on this day as the one of the best – when the community came together to remind the President how important salmon are to Bristol Bay. And not only did we have the opportunity to tell him, he listened and agreed.
 
It was one of those days that put everything in perspective. Many of us at Trout Unlimited – staff and members – and our partners have worked for so long, and said so often, “we don’t want Pebble.” Wednesday made us realize that not just anyone has listened, but the President of the United States has listened. The President has come to Alaska and the tiny town of Dillinhgam and acknowledged not only the resource and threat, but also the commitment made by these persistent citizens who recognize that their resource is too important to risk with a giant mine that would permanently scar the landscape. It’s a big step – and one of which we should all be proud. Even more so now than ever before, it is important to finalize the protections we have asked for and ensure Bristol Bay remains “salmon country” for generations to come.
 
Trout Unlimited thanks the President very much for coming, and acknowledging the resource and its importance to future generations. We are so honored to have had the opportunity to stand beside the people of Bristol Bay on Wednesday and will continue to do so until our shared goals for protecting Bristol Bay’s clean waters, salmon, jobs and unique way of life are realized. 
 
Jenny Lynes is the Communications and Digital Advocacy Coordinator for the Alaska program. She lives in Anchorage. 
 
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