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EPA chief hears mine opponents at Bristol Bay meeting

By MARGARET BAUMAN
Dutch Harbor Fisherman via The Associated Press

Published: August 4th, 2010 03:59 PM
Last Modified: August 4th, 2010 09:50 PM

DILLINGHAM — One by one, representatives of a dozen Southwest Alaska communities stood to tell the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of the threat they feel the massive Pebble mine prospect would pose to their way of life.

“If you take away who we are, our natural resources, that would be terminating us as a people,” Mary Ann Johnson from the tribal council of Portage Creek told EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last week, during a listening session at Dillingham High School.

“The salmon have saved people from starvation,” said Dennis Andrew, of the village of New Stuyahok, noting the importance of the Bristol Bay watershed’s abundance to both people and wildlife. “It is so important that they continue to spawn in our waters.”

The event, billed by EPA as a listening session on the massive copper, gold, silver and molybdenum deposit that could be mined at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, attracted only opponents.

Supporters, including representatives of Iliamna Development Corp., who say the prospect poses a tremendous opportunity for economic development, were not in attendance.

Jackson had met earlier in Anchorage with representatives of the Pebble Limited Partnership, which has said it will invest up to $73 million in Alaska this year as part of its ongoing effort to advance the project. According to the Pebble Partnership, the mine prospect has one of the largest concentrations of copper, gold, molybdenum and silver in the world.

Those speaking to the EPA at the listening session spoke of other riches. They are the sons and daughters of Eskimo families who have inhabited this region for thousands of years, engaging in a subsistence lifestyle dependent upon the fish and sea mammals in the waters of Bristol Bay and a land bountiful in wildlife and berries.

“We lead a very rich lifestyle in a resource-rich area,” said Tom Tilden, first chief of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham. “We can continue to live in this area as long as the resources are protected.”

“Bristol Bay is a national treasure that we must protect,” said Robin Samuelsen, president and chief executive officer of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. “Bristol Bay is one of those rare areas where we should not mine.”

“We believe,” said Kimberly Williams, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai, Caretakers of the Land, “that our life is just so worth protecting. We are not going to go away; we’re going to keep fighting” (to protect the Bristol Bay watershed).

Jackson, who holds a master’s in chemical engineering from Princeton University, opened the meeting with greetings from President Barack Obama. She told the group that Obama wants his administration to talk with tribes on a government-to-government basis.

She also told several dozen people gathered in the high school gymnasium “that there is no such thing as a choice between a job and clean water. You are entitled to both.”

Jackson, who grew up in coastal Louisiana, said life there was tough “but I will take my hat off to the people who make their living here,” a reference to the challenges of living in rural Alaska and the subsistence lifestyle.

The speakers’ list ranged from Jason Metrokin, president and chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., to Bella Hammond of Lake Clark, widow of former Gov. Jay Hammond, who received a standing ovation.

Others included former Alaska Senate President Rick Halford, a technical advisor to Nunamta Aulukestai and Trout Unlimited; Dillingham city planner Jody Seitz, and Anchorage attorney Jeff Parker, representing the community of Nondalton.

Major concerns voiced were the importance of maintaining pollution-free waters critical to subsistence and the Yup’ik Eskimo culture, as well as the multi-million dollar commercial and sport fishing industry.

Some focused on potential activities at the proposed mine that they believe could forever contaminate the watershed critical to all life in the region. Others contended that activities during the prospect’s exploration phase are damaging king salmon runs and causing many animals in the Mulchatna caribou herd to migrate elsewhere.

“Moose and caribou are an important part of our diet,” said Peter Christopher of New Stuyahok. Exploration activities at the mine site have scared off 75 percent of the Mulchatna herd, he said.

“The mine could affect the Nushagak, which is our aquifer,” Seitz said.

The city of Dillingham opposes Pebble, she said. “Fisheries are a critical piece of the economy.”

Many speakers also addressed a need for a closer relationship between the federal and tribal governments, and said the state does not support the tribes.

The listening session was preceded by a potluck luncheon featuring a number of popular area foods, including moose, salmon, duck, muktuk and fried bread, plus salads and large bowls of akutaq – Eskimo ice cream – filled with berries abundant in the region.

Read more: http://www.adn.com/2010/08/04/1395461/epa-chief-hears-mine-opponents.html#ixzz0vi4wfFF5

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Spring Leopard | Photo by J. Hasegawa

My first trout on the fly is a cherished memory. I was 12 years old. It was caught with a polar shrimp fly that I had found on the bank earlier that day. After eagerly casting my Dad’s 9 weight fly rod out into the blue-gray waters of the Kenai, I watched as it disappeared from my sight. The take was unexpected and sharp. For the first time, I felt the difference between fly-fishing for trout and fishing for salmon. A huge rush pulsed through me with each fresh run and jump of the trout. I was laughing out loud looking for my Dad. As I gained control and brought her in I took a glance around… no one, not a soul. The salmon fishing crowds were 100 yards downstream, packed shoulder-to-shoulder as far as the eye could see.

Time stopped for those few minutes as I carefully reeled in the beautiful rainbow. This one fish changed my fishing life. I remember holding it, looking at the beautiful coloration. The river sounded different from then on, more vivid and clear. It was and still is a great memory.

I first used my Dad’s heavy salmon fly rods for trout and then later saved up enough allowance for a real trout rod and reel. At 14, I bought my first fly rod; a 4 weight Sage with a Ross Cimarron reel. It was my most cherished possession. I would tag along on every one of my Dad’s, friend’s or relative’s fishing trips. Rarely fishing for salmon, I would trek off on my own to the upper Russian or to various parts of the Kenai away from the crowds.

26″ Local Dolly | Photo by J.Kim

The day after passing my driver’s test I drove to the Russian for a weekend of fly fishing with my longtime fishing buddy RP (The Big Pull). Dozens upon dozens of trips followed. During Summers we would go on a trip every week. During school, we would skip a Friday here or a Monday there to extend the weekend on the river. At 16 we became obsessed with floating the Kenai. At 17 we would hike into bear-infested streams on the Kenai Peninsula or off the Alaska Highway. On one memorable trip, we had a train drop us off near a stream in the heart of Alaska for a week of  heaven, dry-flying for rainbows and trophy grayling that had never before seen a fly. On another trip, we hiked 10 miles through knee high soupy tundra to fish the northernmost point of wild rainbow trout in North America.

Speyground, April 2007

Our need for fishing more remote streams and catching never before caught trout expanded our sights to Southwestern Alaska. My first trip to Lake Illiamna and the Newhalen River signaled the beginning of my obsession for 30 inch trophies. The Newhalen is a beautiful river with picturesque gorges and deep holes stacked with fish. Its power comes from being nearly the same width as the Kenai while holding twice the volume of water.

A friend and I arrived in October and stayed at Illiamna Lake Resort. The picturesque resort was closed for the season. The caretaker, a family friend, gave us free reign on the leftover food, truck and jet boat. We fished for a week under lightly falling snow and sub-freezing temperatures. The constant ice in our guides, the numbness of our hands and legs are a distant memory to the rainbows, dollies and lake trout we had all to ourselves. The trout were girthy beyond recognition from all of the salmon eggs and flesh in the river. The fish of the trip was a 31 inch dolly so gorged with eggs it weighed in at close to 20 pounds. Sadly, it is this very water that will bear the brunt of irreversible toxic pollution if Northern Dynasty Minerals gains approval to build the world’s largest open pit mine and the world’s largest earthen dams to hold the toxic waste rock.

Worth Preserving | Photo courtesy of R. Peterson

After being lucky enough to fish the Illiamna drainages, I jumped at the chance to meet up with RP who was now a guide on the river N and other famed southwest Alaska waters. With rainbows larger than anywhere in the world, the N is THE river. Big water, big flies, and big trout. A testing ground for hardcore fly fishers.

Our first trip to the N was in late October. With winds and sleet greeting me as I exited the airport, R.P. was outside leaned up against our clunker rental, a pre 90’s Ford Escort. He was rolling up a cig with a big grin on his face. “Yo Tuber, ready to hit it?”. We headed straight for the jet boat. That afternoon at our first stop on the river, we each hooked into 27 inchers. At the next hole, R.P. hooked his first plus 30, a 31 inch buck. Just 15 minutes later on the same hole, I landed my dream fish, a 30 inch hen. The next 2 days, we caught a few more rainbows each but none bigger than 27.

 

First 31" Buck.

First 31" Buck.

During the last run before my flight out, I hooked into a rainbow that I still daydream about to this day. The take nearly ripped my 8 weight out of my frozen hands. In just seconds, I was into my backing. I started maneuvering my way downstream through the chest-deep water. I knew if I could hold him at the slow corner hole 150 yards below, I may have a chance. R.P. shouted from 100 yards upriver, “hold him” as he made his way towards me. I remember everything about that 5 minute battle along with it’s abrupt end. The screetching drag, the afterburn of flyline vs skin, the chill of freezing water spilling over my waders as I hopped downriver. The rainbow felt like a mid 30 incher, a monster hog, pushing near 20 pounds. The one and only jump out of water shortly before breaking off my tippet only confirmed my guess. It was truly a thing of beauty.

Two hours later packed and ready to head off back to Anchorage. I paid RP my half of the car rental and gas for the boat wearing the same big grin that he had on his face when I arrived. I’ve been going back almost every October since.

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