Along with scores of students expected to attend, residents of Bristol Bay communities eager to hear from mining and state officials about plans for a huge open-pit mine northwest of Iliamna will crowd into the limited space of an Iliamna village teen center Friday for the opening of a two-day educational event sponsored by the Bristol Bay Campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
There they hope to hear how Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. will keep promises not to damage sensitive fish spawning streams and subsistence habitat on which many in the communities depend.
The event, entitled the Land and Renewable Resources Conference II, had been generally understood to be an open-to-the-public event. But while the public may attend, space is so limited that organizers have said they will close the doors to the teen center once capacity (around 90) has been reached. Saturday's sessions are to be held in an elementary school where a somewhat larger, but still restricted capacity exists.
According to organizer Debi McLean-Nelson, director of the Bristol Bay Campus, some 63 students are signed up for the conference, which she said earlier this week was really "a class."
That was news to Northern Dynasty Mines officials, who nevertheless will attend the conference in their continuing effort to engage in discussions with critics and supporters living in the region.
Expected to participate are representatives of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., Northern Dynasty Mines Inc., state and local officials, Native corporations, village and tribal heads, scientists versed in a variety of disciplines, as well as members of the general public.
Friday's agenda opens with remarks by Newhalen Mayor Bob Rychnovsky, followed by Raymond Wassillie, chief of the Native Village of Newhalen; Jeff Currier, manager of the Lake and Peninsula Borough; and McLean-Nelson.
Special guest speakers include Gov. Frank Murkowski, who is on the agenda to talk about responsible development and sustainable natural resources, and former Gov. Jay Hammond, who will remark on what's at stake and how to prepare for the advent of the largest open-pit mine in North America.
That will be followed by a panel discussion with some of the mining industry players whose companies also hold claims in the region and Alaska, including Full Metal Minerals, Liberty Star Gold Corp. and TNR Resources.
Friday's agenda will feature an afternoon panel of Northern Dynasty representatives, followed by another panel comprised of Native corporation officials with the NANA Corp., the Bristol Bay Native Corp., Bering Straits Regional Corp. and Doyon Ltd., and a third panel will include Ed Fogels of the Alaska Large Mine Permit Team, who is expected to discuss impacts of mine development on tourism, subsistence and commercial fishing.
Saturday and Sunday will offer more of the same.
One discussion will include representatives of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the department's Subsistence Division. Another will feature Brian Kraft of the Bristol Bay Alliance and Scott Brennan of Alaskans for Responsible Mining, as well as Robin Samuelsen, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.
Other discussions will cover expected infrastructure needs, business development and a panel on the village perspectives.
"We are trying to educate the community so they can make the best-informed decisions they can," McLean-Nelson said. "We will accommodate as many as we can."
Kraft, head of the recently formed Bristol Bay Alliance, which also is attempting to raise public awareness about mining issues, said he has doubts about the upcoming conference, though his organization is a participant. He said the agenda appeared to suggest the mine already is a done deal.
"My question is how is mining a 'renewable' resource?" he asked in a March 31 interview in reference to the conference title. "(Mining) is everything but renewable."
Kraft said the agenda looked one-sided, with discussions about the status of exploration, moving from exploration to development and how to get jobs.
McLean-Nelson said that is not the case.
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