Taking on a brand new role: Reluctant activist pushes for better future for Alaska's resources

Voices Of The State

Posted: Monday, November 12, 2007

This is the story of a reluctant activist. Like a lot of folks, I made my way to Alaska as a young man and was immediately struck by the magic of this place.

Nowadays, teaching a fly fishing class at the local college, I try to explain this to my students, the connection I feel to something far greater than myself, alive in our mountains and flowing in our streams. It's part of the reason fishing is so intrinsic and personal and such a big part of our lives.

It's what drives us into wild places, and why I have so often taken the short flight to visit some of the legendary steams of Bristol Bay.

Anyone who's stepped foot in this nearby region, even only once or twice, knows it epitomizes everything that is unique about Alaska and goes to the very soul of who we are as a state. And now it is in jeopardy.

The Pebble Mine is merely the start of an enormous mining district, planted right on top of what is the largest and most productive salmon run in the world. This is an active seismic area at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Mulchatna drainages, the heart of our thriving commercial, sport, and subsistence fishery.

Proponents of the mine say wait and see, let the permitting process run its course, which would be all well and good, if we truly had a process that worked.

Unfortunately, our previous governor, Frank Murkowski, completely sabotaged it, twisting it entirely in favor of mining interests. First, he transferred the Habitat Division from Fish and Game, the only department whose mandate is to protect our fish and wildlife resources, to DEC, who have never turned down a permit for large-scale mining. Second, he changed mixing zone regulations to allow discharge of pollutants into spawning streams. Currently, DEC and DNR, the permitting agencies for this mess, are headed by men long tied to the mining industry.

Perhaps what should worry us most about this development is that the main force behind it is now a company called Anglo-American, which despite its name is a giant foreign conglomerate, with a questionable track record, that does most of its work in Third World countries.

Their CEO was recently in state making all kinds of promises. In my research, however, what I've found is a disturbing trend of broken promises that resulted in recent tailings spills, human rights violations and even large numbers of worker fatalities. If they can't even keep their workers safe, what chance do our fish and wildlife have?

Lastly, consider the economics. Most Alaskans will receive absolutely nothing from the development of Pebble. Federal tax laws are still mired in the 1800s. And as far as state tax laws, oil companies pay about 20 percent of overall value to the state, mineral extraction companies pay less than 1 percent overall.

And what if something does go wrong? Ask the people in Butte, Mont., or Summitville, Colo., which are now Superfund Cleanup sites, costing all of us tens of millions of tax dollars every year.

Government and industry assured citizens of Butte and Summitville nothing would happen. They also said, "trust us, let the permitting process run its course."

It is these, and so many other factors that have left me to wonder what in the world are we thinking? Are we willing to simply sell off what makes us unique, what gives us our individuality and what separates us from the rest of the U.S. and most of the world?

It is these questions that have turned my thoughts away from the personal and outward, realizing that at some point you must turn around and take a stand for what you feel is important.

This is my home, the place I've chosen to live and where I will die, and it is these simple things clean water and our wild places that are most important to me. It is these things that have turned me into a reluctant activist.

Dave Atcheson, of Sterling, spent many years as a commercial fisherman. He's also an avid sport fisherman and hunter, and now the regional outreach director for the Renewable Resources Coalition. He can be reached at dave@renewableresourcescoalition.org.

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