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Protect fish, wildlife and jobs: Bristol Bay can't take large mines

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Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2012 12:01 am

Community perspective

As many Alaskans know, there are some unbeatable places to work, hunt and fish throughout this state — and in many cases not far from our back porch. As seasoned guides and lodge owners, we’ve had the opportunity to live, work and play in one of the state’s crown jewels — Bristol Bay. Through the years, we’ve introduced thousands of travelers — some Alaskans, others from Outside — to this pristine region and the trophy-sized fish of Bristol Bay’s famed rivers.

Bristol Bay is on the map because of fish. For more than 75 years, anglers from far and wide have flocked to this area to catch hauntingly large rainbow trout and salmon in numbers found nowhere else in the world. In 1950, the region’s lodge and tourism industry was born when Ray Petersen, Sonny’s dad, founded Anglers Paradise lodges. By 1959, more than 1,000 guests visited Petersen’s famous Brooks Lodge each summer. Today, nearly 65,000 recreational travelers come to Bristol Bay each year to experience world-class fishing at one of approximately 70 lodges or do-it-yourself campsites. For Alaskans, this has created a flourishing economy, with sport fishing generating more than 800 jobs and $60 million in revenue each year.

Sadly, the threat of large-scale mining could soon make one of the region’s most well-established economic engines a thing of the past. That’s because in addition to the bountiful fish population, Bristol Bay is also home to one of the world’s largest gold, copper and molybdenum deposits. The threats of hard-rock mining — most notably, Pebble Mine — to the fish and wildlife habitat in this region are severe.

While proponents of the mine say there is little chance of harming the fish, other experts offer some real concerns. For example, small amounts of copper above naturally occurring levels in water can significantly impact a salmon’s ability to find its natal spawning stream. Pebble is much larger than all other hard-rock mines in Alaska combined and estimated to produce nearly 10 billion tons of waste to be permanently stored on site in the seismically active region. Additionally, the mining industry has a poor track record when it comes to maintaining existing water quality. Today very few hard-rock mines — if any — haven’t had some sort of water quality impact in the United States.

Bristol Bay’s existing jobs and culture depend on healthy runs of fish. A mine the size of Pebble has never been built in North America, and certainly not in such important fish habitat. At best Pebble is an experiment — and Alaskans can’t afford to experiment with existing jobs, healthy wildlife populations and world-renowned hunting and fishing opportunities.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed. In it, the agency came to the same conclusion many Alaskans have already made — the potential threats of a mine like Pebble could permanently destroy this one-of-a-kind fishery. While it’s an important step in the right direction, the pursuit to protect Bristol Bay is not over. The EPA should invoke its authority through the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) to protect the watershed from future mining or large-scale development. These restrictions are rooted in well-established precedents and long-standing policies within the Clean Water Act 404 program, and would provide long-term security for the people of Bristol Bay and Alaska’s economy.  

 Bud Hodson has been in the Alaska sportfishing business for over 32 years and is a long-time Alaskan. He owns and operates Tikchik Narrows Lodge, one of Bristol Bay’s first lodges.

Sonny Petersen is owner and operator of Katmailand, and his family pioneered sport fishing and tourism in Bristol Bay. In 1974, he began an air taxi operation, Katmai Air. He spends his summers managing the three lodges and Katmai Air and spends his winters in Anchorage preparing for the next season.

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