The Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska is a staggering, Edenic region that rivals any place on earth in size, scope, and beauty. These are Lord of the Rings-level visuals, with gigantic mountains, lakes, valleys, streams, volcanoes, forests, and beasts that rival Peter Jackson’s beloved New Zealand. Home to the Alutiq, Aleut, and Yup’ik people, this is an ancient water world where, this being Alaska, everything is larger then life and dramatic. The largest sockeye salmon runs in the world are here, one of the largest lakes in the country is here, and one of the highest tides and most dangerous seafaring bays in the world is here. This is a place that looks like the original location of where land met sea, biblically dramatic, bestowed with the magic and power its native inhabitants have long respected.
This outdoor traveler’s paradise of unspoiled lakes and sky splitting mountains, of large, fish laden rivers coursing through the region like a living latticework is now in danger. A recent feature by Edwin Dobb’s in National Geographic highlighted how the now common story of industry versus ecosystem is raging in the Bristol Bay Region, the crowning jewel of the state’s southwestern border.
Before we delve beneath the earth to consider what the land has been hiding all these years, let’s look at what’s visible above it, and what makes Bristol Bay one of the greatest destinations for people who love the great outdoors. Remote, rugged camp sites off of bubbling streams, world class fly fishing, with an endless array of mountains and woods, rivers and lakes to explore. This is not travel for the feint of heart or the easily spooked—this is Alaska, there are bears here—but this is a land that the true deep country camper and passionate fishermen and hunter will recognized immediately as untouchable.
The first thing to understand about this 40,000-square-mile area is that it’s a massive watershed. There are nine major rivers that course through Bristol Bay, with countless ponds, tributaries, and streams creating a circulatory system that feeds this incredibly diverse ecosystem. Alaska, a land of giants—huge mountains, Grizzly and Kodiak bears, the most perfect Volcano cone on earth—has her largest lake, the Iliamma, in the Bristol Bay region. Due to the heretofore lack of human interference, Iliamma Lake contains the largest sockeye salmon runs in the country, not to mention one of the largest king salmon runs. The salmon have been a vital source of protein, income, and attraction for the Native and local population, not to mention a lynchpin in the delicate ecosystem superstructure that makes the Bristol Bay a region of astonishing abundance.
That abundance runs deep below ground as well, specifically at the locus of three streams north of Iliamma Lake, where a gigantic body of ore has been found containing a huge amount of copper and gold, the latter of which could turn out to be the largest deposits in the world. As Mr. Dobbs reported, there is an estimated 40 million tons of copper and 107 million ounces of gold. The economic windfall from mining such a source could reach $500 billion, dwarfing the $120 million the salmon fishery brings in each year. This potential mining boon doesn’t even include taxes, income from other industries that would arrive, and the huge amount of employment opportunities such a mine would create. This is the type of find that can change an entire region, the potential for good and ill both seemingly stratospheric. The money to be made from the proposed site, called the Pebble Mine by the two international companies that are doing the evaluations, could change the lives of everyone in the region. It would take years to pass the necessary regulations before construction could begun, but there is no question that should the Pebble Mine be given the green light, industry would likely boom in this majestic, untouched place, changing it forever.
The Bristol Bay region is a wonderland for fishing, hunting, camping, and trekking. It has remained blissfully untouched for so long that even a novice fly fishermen could come away with a catch or two thanks to the abundance, and variety, of fish. But Bristol Bay is of course more then just a paradise for outdoors lovers, it has been home for thousands of years to indigenous tribes like the Yupik, who have been fishing for salmon, whitefish, and pike to make their living. Any disturbance in this fragile ecosystem could trigger myriad environmental consequences, yet the issue is not black and white, and those in charge of the mine are keenly aware of the symbiosis between the watershed and the people who depend on it. There are plenty of people in the area who are poor and would benefit from the mine, and just as many people opposed to it, knowing even a minor change to the watershed could trigger incalculable variations within the fishery, potentially destroying subsistence farming forever as well all the flora and fauna that depend on the fish runs as well. Even a small amount of sulfur seeping from a part of the mine into the water, oxygenating and becoming sulfuric acid, could destroy the fish and the aquatic organisms they feed on to survive and spawn.
There are still quite a few years before we’ll know how this will play out, and then many more years after that before any substantial changes to the region would take place. Yet this is not a large amount of time to the people who have been living in the area for thousands of years, nor should it dilute the important debate about whether or not a environmentally sound mine is really possible, and, as Mr. Dobbs asked in the headline of his article, what in the end will be more important, salmon or gold?