Alaskans pursue permanent protections for Bristol Bay

‘It’s time to put Pebble to rest.’

 

The Bristol Bay is home to one the largest wild salmon runs in the world. For the past 15 years the bay has been under threat from development of the Pebble Mine.

This story was originally published by Hakai magazine and is republished here by permission.

Robin Samuelsen still recalls his first meeting about the prospective Pebble Mine. It was around 2005 or 2006, in Dillingham, Alaska. Listening to an early plan for developing a copper and gold mine in the spawning grounds of Bristol Bay’s abundant salmon, this Curyung tribal chief and commercial fisherman quickly made up his mind. “You’ll kill off our salmon,” Samuelsen remembers saying, adding: “I’ll be up there to stop you.”

“You’ll kill off our salmon. I’ll be up there to stop you.”

More than 15 years later, in November 2020, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) denied the Pebble Mine a key permit, a sharp setback for the mine — though not the first. Already, the mine’s developer, Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), has filed an appeal challenging that decision. PLP was joined by the State of Alaska, which, in an unusual move, filed its own appeal. Both appeals are currently under review.

Even before these latest developments, however, the people living around the Bristol Bay region had been trying to bring this long-running tug of war to rest once and for all.

Just as he promised at the meeting in Dillingham, Samuelsen is part of a tribally led campaign to garner permanent legal protection for the Bristol Bay region’s thriving wild salmon from large-scale mining proposals — whether that be the Pebble Mine, or whatever comes next. Lindsay Layland, deputy director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB), which is involved in the effort, says the goal of the coalition is to find a way to legally prioritize the salmon that mean so much to the people living and fishing in the region.

Layland says the specter of the Pebble Mine has hung over her head since she was in middle school, listening to local radio reports while on her dad’s fishing boat.

By the time Layland joined UTBB in 2016, just a few years out of college, communities had already waged multiple protracted legal battles to secure protections for the fish. In 2009, six tribal councils in the region and two fishing groups launched a lawsuit that eventually prompted the state to amend the land use plan for the Bristol Bay region, but those changes did not remove the potential for large-scale mining. In 2010, Alaska Native tribes and fishermen petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to invoke a rarely used but powerful section of the Clean Water Act, known as 404(c).

According to former EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran, who oversaw this process under the Obama administration, this part of the Clean Water Act empowers the EPA to place certain restrictions on mining and other activities if “it finds that there will be ‘unacceptable adverse impact’” on natural resources, including fisheries.

After a three-year scientific analysis, the EPA in 2014 proposed 404(c) restrictions on any proposal to mine the Pebble deposit if that mining effort would result in certain ecosystem changes. Almost immediately this EPA move, which mine proponents dubbed a “preemptive veto,” triggered years-long legal challenges from PLP. In 2017, under the Trump administration, the EPA agreed to withdraw the not-yet-finalized restrictions. Later that year, PLP submitted its application to USACE.

Fast forward to today, and Samuelsen and Layland are leading a second push for the EPA, now under President Biden, to again use its 404(c) powers. “We’re looking for a long-term fix,” says Samuelsen. Residents are tired of the political back and forth, he says. “It’s time to put Pebble to rest.”

McLerran says the EPA can use its 404(c) power at any point—even if PLP or the State of Alaska wins their appeals. However, the EPA would need to start this regulatory process anew—it couldn’t simply pick up where it left off in 2017, according to McLerran. And this time, the EPA would be considering PLP’s latest public — and recently revealed, private — ambitions for the mine before deciding on a possible 404(c) “veto.” Still, he adds, “the science has not changed.”

Yet even this EPA action would not provide the kind of permanent, watershed-wide protection the tribes and fishermen are seeking. Section 404(c) is a scalpel — a specific tool for a specific problem — says Matt Newman, an attorney working on behalf of UTBB. Depending on what geographic area the EPA might outline in a 404(c) decision, its ruling could make only certain areas around the Pebble deposit off limits to mining, and not the full watershed.

That’s why three tribal organizations — UTBB, Bristol Bay Native Association, and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation — and many supporters are championing a much more sweeping approach to protections. In addition to calling for EPA action, the coalition wants Congress to declare the broader Bristol Bay region a national fisheries area, says Newman. This legislative proposal, inspired by the fisheries regulations of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, would establish a first-of-its-kind onshore fisheries area. In this case, Newman says, the legislation would reflect similar restrictions on hardrock mining as Section 404(c), but across all of Bristol Bay’s nine major river basins.

According to PLP CEO John Shively, putting aside an area the size of the state of Ohio in a way “that limits not only mining but potentially other economic development does not make sense and harms opportunities for rural job creation and economic opportunity.”

“The mission is not to close the door to all development,” says Newman, “but rather to close the door on this very particular threat to the fishery.”

At this point, the campaign is just getting off the ground. The coalition is ramping up outreach and education efforts within Bristol Bay and beyond — including trying to make inroads with the new Biden administration.

While Samuelsen is optimistic about the campaign’s chances of success, he says that if the EPA and Congress don’t come alongside and protect Bristol Bay’s salmon, his grandchildren will continue the cause. “We’re the Salmon People,” says Samuelsen. “We are totally intertwined with our salmon.”

Ashley Braun is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Seattle, Washington. She also works as an editor and fact checker. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.