Alaska's Choice: Salmon or Gold

If built, a huge mine would trans­form Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, possibly jeopar­dizing the world’s richest sockeye salmon fishery.

This story appears in the December 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.

All that the American West once was, Alaska still is. Abounding with natural marvels and largely untouched by human ambition, it strikes the newcomer as a land of endless prospect, an impression vividly reinforced from the passenger seat of a low-flying Cessna 180. Rick Halford, a bush pilot and former Republican state legislator, is showing me a piece of Alaska tucked between national parks and other protected lands about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage: the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed. Never was the term more meaningful. In every direction the dominant feature of the landscape, the element that binds everything together, is water. Within this 40,000-square-mile area are nine major rivers fed by dozens of tributaries that sometimes resemble stiff tree branches, sometimes sinuous arteries. Here are ponds so great in number and whimsical of shape they call to mind a crowded Joan Miró canvas stretching to the horizon. In more places than not, the water table lies near the surface, producing seeps and springs, continually recharging the spongelike tundra. This is a wet place indeed.

We fly upstream, following the Nushagak River toward its source, passing braided stretches where it is joined by the Wood, Iowithla, and Kokwok. Far to the right, the west end of Iliamna Lake, Alaska's largest, comes into view. Aside from a few scattered villages and the plane's fleeting shadow, no human signs are visible. No dams, no deforestation, no highways, housing divisions, or power plants. That this place is mostly undeveloped helps explain why it is home to the world's largest sockeye salmon runs and one of North America's largest chinook, or king, salmon runs, to say nothing of the trophy rainbow trout and grayling and other species that flourish here.

We near our destination, the locus of the toughest dilemma this uncommonly pristine and biologically productive region has ever faced. "Here it is," Halford says, "the spot where streams drain in three directions." From this hilly expanse north of Iliamna Lake, the Chulitna River flows east into Lake Clark, heart of the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The South and North Forks of the Koktuli River meander northwest into the Mulchatna River, which feeds the Nushagak, and Upper Talarik Creek tumbles south into Iliamna Lake, which empties into the Kvichak River, which, like the Nushagak, eventually reaches Bristol Bay. Every summer, during a period lasting a few weeks, 30 to 40 million adult sockeye return to the bay. Driven by an ancient and unforgiving imperative, they swim against the shallow currents of these rivers up to their headwaters to spawn and die so that their kind may endure.

But salmon are not the only outstanding feature of this Alaska wilderness. Where the uppermost reaches of three streams originate, a geologic anomaly has been found—an ore body that may hold the world's largest deposit of gold and one of the largest of copper. Two companies, Northern Dynasty, of British Columbia, and Anglo American, a giant multinational based in England, have teamed up as the Pebble Partnership to evaluate the potential for an open-pit mine—possibly up to two miles wide and 1,700 feet deep—and an underground mine of similar scale. The prospect alarms many, especially those who depend on or value the salmon above all else. They fear that the Pebble mine would destroy the fishery, largely by contaminating the water. The Pebble partners argue that extractive industry and wildlife can coexist and that the mine would bring much needed economic benefits. Framing this as "mine versus salmon," however, overlooks the project's larger potential effect: It could stimulate industrial growth on a scale that would permanently transform the Bristol Bay region.

At once routine and astonishing, and even more astonishing for being routine, the summer sockeye run has started. Monitors at Port Moller, out on the Alaska Peninsula, have sent word that the initial numbers are in keeping with those of past seasons—and increasing steadily. From Naknek, south of the Kvichak River, to Dillingham, at the mouth of the Nushagak, all of coastal Bristol Bay is high on anticipation.

Among the first to get their nets wet are the subsistence fishers who live on and near the bay. For thousands of years the indigenous Yupik have depended on salmon, along with pike, whitefish, beavers, caribou, moose, berries, and plants such as wild rhubarb. "We share with the whole village," says Luki Akelkok, Sr., a 72-year-old Yupik patriarch. Yes, adds Bobby Andrew, who's in his late 60s, "we give away our first big game. It always comes back."

Akelkok and Andrew are escorting me by jet boat to Lewis Point, a long gravel beach that salmon swim past on their way upstream. Close enough to the bay to lie within the tidal zone, the river here is broad, muddy, and in places dangerously shallow, so Akelkok approaches gingerly. Every summer people from nearby villages gather at this spot to fish for sockeye and, more important, for kings, the largest of the salmon and the first to return to Bristol Bay, in early June. The men anchor one end of a setnet onshore, pull the other end into the water, allowing the current to lift and unfold it, then wait until the fish swim into the webbing, which catches their gills. Arrayed along the riverbank are wooden sheds where women fillet the salmon and hang the narrow strips to dry in preparation for smoking. Since long before statehood and oil royalties, long before Russian explorers introduced Christianity to Alaska, this scene has played out in this place. But now the two elders believe the threat the Pebble mine poses to the creeks, rivers, and lakes where salmon spawn also endangers the culture the fish have sustained for centuries. "Once that's gone," Akelkok says, referring to the region's biological vitality, "you can't get it back."

Nothing about the condition of other once robust salmon fisheries in the lower 48 contradicts Akelkok's view. In the Columbia River Basin the four horsemen of fisheries collapse—habitat degradation, dams, weakening of the genetic pool through the use of hatcheries, and overharvesting—have destroyed the salmon stock in dozens of places and reduced the rest to remnants. That's the grim backdrop for the increasingly contentious debate in Bristol Bay, one of the few places left where the condition of the fish can be discussed without using the word recovery. Bristol Bay still possesses what has been squandered elsewhere—abundance.

Of all the millions of sockeye that return each year and survive the gantlet of commercial and subsistence fishing in the bay, at least a million will enter the Wood River, a tributary of the Nushagak. That's a single-river population at least ten times greater than the recent annual returns for the entire Columbia River system. And unlike most other surviving runs in the U.S., which include hatchery-raised salmon, the Wood River population is completely wild.

More than differences in ecosystem integrity explain this wide gap in productivity. In Bristol Bay, fishery managers have limited the length of gill nets, the number of fishing permits, and the length of commercial boats. But the real genius of salmon management here is the strict use of "escapement numbers"—daily tallies of fish entering major spawning rivers—to determine how many can subsequently be taken by commercial, subsistence, and sport fishers. Escapement goals are based on long-term observations of the number of fish required to guarantee that, as Bobby Andrew says, "they always come back." The 2009 goal for sockeye on the Kvichak was 2,650,000; for the entire Bristol Bay watershed, it was 8,750,000.

What escapement-based management means in practical terms is that during the sockeye season—generally from mid-June to late July—those who rely on the fish live by the tides, because tides carry each pulse of salmon toward the headwaters. Whether it's the Bouker family with a setnet on the beach at Ekuk, targeting salmon headed for the Nushagak drainage, or Everett Thompson and his drift boat outside the mouth of the Egegik River, the commercial fishers of Bristol Bay can fish only during "openings," announced over the radio by state officials. Openings usually last six or more hours and can occur once or twice a day, or not at all for days at a time. They are periods of frenzied labor and, for those who are adept—and lucky—jubilation.

"It's like Christmas morning!" exclaims a radiant Ina Bouker, as she watches heads and tails splashing along the top of her net, held up by small buoys that stretch out into the spangled water. If so many fish are entangled near the surface, many more must be caught below. Indeed, as the incoming tide slackens, the net is so heavy with sockeye that Ina's husband, John, hitches it to a four-wheel-drive truck and drags it onto the shore. During this six-hour opening, Ina and John and their six children will harvest 18,000 pounds of fish from two nets. Across the bay Everett Thompson and his drift-net crew are well on the way to a 220,000-pound season, their best ever. "I love fishing," Thompson says. "Sometimes it feels like work."

Thompson and Ina Bouker have been net­ting salmon since they were kids, and al­though they're rooted in the subsistence tradition, they're mainly commercial fishers. During the sockeye season, Thompson earns enough money to support himself and his daughter; during the off-season, he hunts moose, caribou, and other wild game to supplement their diet. The Boukers own an air-taxi service and a construction company, but they use some of the income from fishing for their children's college fund.

Not everyone in the Bristol Bay watershed can rely on biological abundance to stave off hardship. Near the Pebble deposit, far from the fisheries on the bay, fuel and food are painfully expensive, and stable employment scarce. Myrtle Anelon, a 68-year-old Alaska native who owns a bed and breakfast in Iliamna, says the Pebble Partnership is the first outside economic business to take an interest in her community's welfare. "The others make money in our backyard," she says, referring to seasonal residents who own lodges that cater to high-end sport fishers, "but they don't hire locals, they don't buy from us."

Anelon's daughter, Lisa Reimers, who heads the Iliamna Development Corporation, is concerned. "Outsiders want us to go back to the old ways," she says, explaining that some mine opponents promote a self-serving, sentimental view that ignores what it actually takes to survive. To be sure, those who live in the Iliamna Lake area do still practice subsistence fishing—Anelon tends to a family setnet just outside town—and they treasure the wild habitat that supports it. But they also have truck payments, mortgages, and medical bills to pay. They want to send their kids to college. They need cash. "What's their plan for us?" Reimers asks of those who condemn her and others like her for welcoming mining jobs. "Without Pebble, what do we do?"

These are the people John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, has in mind when he touts the benefits of prolonged, large-scale mining at the headwaters of an incomparable sockeye fishery. Having arrived in Alaska as a VISTA volunteer more than 40 years ago, Shively has held high-level state government positions, including commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. He has also worked with native groups to promote development in rural areas, a long-standing interest the Pebble mine allows him to pursue. The mine would provide some 2,000 construction jobs and 800 to 1,000 operating jobs. Shively wants more than half the operating positions to be filled by people who live around Bristol Bay, which has only about 6,900 residents. Other benefits would include income for local retailers and suppliers, though few such businesses exist today, as well as revenue for the state and for local governments from taxes and royalties.

We all rely on base metals. Cars, computers, and other common electrical devices at our disposal require copper. What's more, says Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Partnership, "copper is one of the building blocks of the green economy." Wind turbines, for example, can use thousands of pounds apiece. Heatwole, two of his co-workers, and I have arrived by helicopter at a bare hill overlooking the site of the proposed mine. Buried beneath the ground here are an estimated 40 million tons of copper, 107 million ounces of gold, and 2.8 million tons of molybdenum (used as a hardener in lightweight alloy products like surgical instruments). The value of this mother lode ranges between $100 billion and $500 billion. But unlike the value of the salmon fishery year in and year out—upwards of $120 million—once these geologic riches are gone, they will never come back.

The deposit is divided into two sections—a western district, where the ore could be extracted by open-pit mining, and an eastern district, where the ore is deeper and would require an underground operation. Particulars will not be revealed until 2012, when the partnership submits its official plan to state regulatory agencies to start the permitting process, but the general outline, based largely on documents Northern Dynasty released several years ago, may look like this: Besides two large mines, the complex likely would include a mill to crush and separate metals; immense damlike impoundments to contain the fine-grained waste, or tailings, from the mill; a slurry pipe to transport the milled ore to Cook Inlet; a deepwater port on Cook Inlet; a haul road along the same corridor; and 250 to 300 megawatts of power, generated either on-site or outside the region.

"The only place worse to put a mine would be my living room." That's what former Alaska governor Jay Hammond said of Pebble, according to his widow, Bella. Considering that their living room is yards away from wild and remote Lake Clark, across from the glacierbound peaks of the Chigmit Mountains, Hammond couldn't have issued a stronger indictment. Of the many threats posed by the mine—disruption of spawning grounds along the haul road (which would cross scores of streams), draining of spawning grounds (including Upper Talarik Creek) near the mine, the outright destruction of spawning grounds within the mining complex—what concerns people most is acid mine drainage. When a sulfur-bearing ore such as the Pebble deposit is exposed to air and water, it produces sulfuric acid, which accelerates the dissolution of copper and other minerals. The resultant metal-laden, acidic cocktail can kill fish and other organisms.

From its uppermost reaches near the mine site, Upper Talarik Creek is just 35 miles long, yet in recent years 20,000 to 100,000 sockeye have returned annually to this stream to spawn. And they have attracted thousands of rainbow trout, which feed on salmon eggs. The creek is connected to the South Fork of the Koktuli River, a king salmon spawning stream, because water seeps from the Koktuli under a ridge into Upper Talarik. Surface water becoming groundwater becoming surface water again is one of the features of the country north of Iliamna Lake—and it's why sockeye favor this body of water. Springs replenish the gravel-bottomed shores of the lake's islands with highly oxygenated water, which salmon eggs need to mature. Any accidental acid mine drainage into this intricately connected natural system could be disastrous.

John Shively insists that mine design today is more environmentally sensitive than ever before. And he's right. Even though the official plan has yet to be revealed, some basic assumptions are reasonable. During operations, the pit would act as a sump, drawing groundwater into it. The water would either be cleaned and discharged or recycled for use in running the mine. Tailings impoundments—the largest possibly more than three miles long and 700 feet deep—would be closely monitored for leaks, but controlling any unseen seepage would be difficult. Short of an earthquake strong enough to breach an impoundment, which seems highly unlikely, the chances of an environmental cata­strophe occurring while the mine is running would be slim. Allowing for three years to complete the permitting process and another three for construction, the partnership estimates that production could not begin until 2017 and that it would go on for 25 years or more. In other words, Pebble is unlikely to cause any large-scale, long-term damage until at least 2040, even if the mine expands, as most such mines do. This means that the more alarmist of the opponents are mistaken: The fisheries are not in immediate danger.

But after the mine closed, the partnership would have to guarantee the integrity of the impoundments, as well as the efficacy of the plant treating the polluted water in the idle pit, from shutdown day onward—in perpetuity. No one disputes this. Indeed, a recent addition to the requirements for permitting is that companies develop a mine-closure plan that includes perpetual monitoring and maintenance, and that they post a bond to cover some of those costs.

Contemporary mine plans also differ from past ones in that they must include provisions for environmental mitigation if habitat is damaged, a policy sometimes referred to as "no net loss." It's a given that the partnership would compensate for the wetlands destroyed for the mining complex, which could encompass more than 30 square miles, although Shively says it would be less than half that. But the bounty of Bristol Bay owes as much to the genetic variety of the fish as to their quantity. Biologists have established that this biocomplexity is responsible for the consistently high productivity of the watershed. From year to year, the number of sockeye that return to any one stream may vary widely, owing to natural causes, while the total return is much less variable. To sustain Bristol Bay's fertility, the whole genetic portfolio, in all its variety, must be protected. Making up for spawning areas that become degraded by restoring others, as if all salmon were interchangeable, would render the overall watershed less resilient. Here, the principle of no net loss could yield the most damaging kind of net loss.

"Everything humans do entails risk," Shively observes. The question, of course, is whether what would be gained from the Pebble mine would outweigh the possible costs. Many deem it foolish in the extreme to construct mammoth tailings impoundments that must never fail—not ever—in a place where all the water is interconnected and the well-being of the world's largest salmon run depends on the whole ecosystem remaining intact.

The reasons for concern don't end there. No mining enterprise of such grand ambition has been attempted anywhere else in Alaska, and this one is so big it could amount to an economic tsunami. The partnership holds leases on 180 square miles, and other companies have staked claims that could result in mining operations in a district spanning hundreds of square miles. In the final days of the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior recommended that 1.1 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land in the middle of the Bristol Bay watershed be opened to mineral exploration and that a section of the bay itself be opened to offshore oil and gas production. The Obama Administration has rejected both proposals, but either could be revived.

If the partnership's vision for Bristol Bay comes to fruition, wider changes will surely follow. "We will bring inexpensive power to the region," Shively says. By that, he means not only to the headwaters area around the mine but to Dillingham and Naknek too. A deepwater port near Williamsport, on Cook Inlet, and the haul-road corridor might be first steps leading to the creation of new towns and industrial enterprises in the watershed.

"It'd make me sick to see a highway coming through this land," says Bella Hammond's 23-year-old granddaughter, Lauren Stanford, sitting in her grandmother's kitchen on Lake Clark. "RVs don't belong here."

Aware that much more is at stake than one huge mine, many opponents are campaigning for the creation of a regionwide conservation zone. It would be modeled after the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve, which encompasses the entire watershed and within which petroleum extraction is effectively banned. In the conservation zone, large-scale hard-rock mining would also be prohibited, though small, environmentally friendly projects would be allowed. Bills to restrict Pebble-scale mining have been introduced in the Alaska legislature. Backers hope that as more people learn about the project and its possible impact, support for a reserve will grow.

To be effective, to say nothing of fair, any plan for preserving the Bristol Bay ecosystem must also ensure a viable economy for the hard-pressed residents of the watershed: jobs and small-business opportunities in the recreation and tourism industry, such as guiding and outfitting, and mechanisms for locals to buy back some of the hundreds of commercial fishing permits now owned by outsiders. Incentives for the direct marketing of salmon would help, by allowing the people who catch the fish to bypass the big processing plants and sell straight to consumers, thereby receiving a larger share of the profits.

"This is the right altitude," Rick Halford says, guiding the Cessna sharply upward, over a snow-packed saddle between two jagged black peaks. "It gives you perspective without losing connection." Viewed from the air, the rough portage road that links Pile Bay Village on the east end of Iliamna Lake to Williamsport on Cook Inlet seems benign. Only 16 miles long, it winds through a narrow stretch of the Chigmit Mountains that fill Bella Hammond's living room window. Since the late 1930s, people have used the road to transport everything from fuel and equipment to fishing boats destined for the bay. But this modest track would be the first leg of the 86-mile infrastructure corridor the Pebble Partnership has envisioned if the mine is approved.

We descend, approaching the edge of Cook Inlet. Just across the frigid, glacier-fed water, a mere 70 miles away, is Homer, which now, thanks to an improved highway, is an easy drive from Anchorage. Everything that could transform Bristol Bay is exactly that close.

"It's time to decide," Bella Hammond says, "what we value most."