Every year the Bristol Bay region lures Clark Whitney to its shores. Beginning at the headwaters of the Nushagak and the Lake Clark and Lake Iliamna drainage, Whitney's hunted, trapped and fished his way to the mouth of the bay.
From the tiniest shrew to the largest brown bear, Whitney, who has spent 37 years camping in that region, says a lot of people don't realize the diversity of the ecosystem. Every arctic environment can be found in that region, he says, from tundra to the furthest reaches of the Northwest coastal forest, yet many don't realize how sensitive the region is.
"I've been lucky enough to experience the abundance that region possesses," he said. "It's so huge. Even with a metaphor it's hard to describe. It's one of the most diverse and abundant regions in the entire state."
With the Pebble gold and copper mine slated to be built in this area, members of the Renewable Resources Coalition (RRC) and Native tribal councils from Nondalton and Dillingham are scrambling to get signatures supporting an initiative that would prohibit new mines from discharging cyanide, sulfuric acid and any other toxins into water used by people for drinking or by salmon for spawning. In order for the Alaska Clean Water Initiative to make it to the 2008 ballot, the groups must gather 23,800 signatures by Jan. 1.
"We want to have a lot more (signatures) than that," said Dave Atcheson, the RRC Kenai Peninsula outreach director. "We really need to have more than that."
In order to keep people informed not only on the particulars of the initiative, but on the Pebble Mine itself, as well as to garner signatures, members of the RRC and Cook Inlet Alliance will hold a rally from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday at Kenai Peninsula College. Atcheson and Whitney will be on hand to give information on the initiative and the area itself and Atcheson said he's hoping Jack Hobson, the author of the initiative and chair of the Nondalton tribal council, will be there as well.
Atcheson, who's hunted and fished in the region himself, said Bristol Bay is just a short plane ride away. It's a huge flyway and nesting area for water fowl and it's home to the Mulchatna caribou herd. When the mine goes in, he said, ore ships will be traveling in and out of the region increasing ship traffic in Cook Inlet.
"I'm not against mining," Atcheson said. "I definitely have a point of view, but I arrived at my point of view by studying the situation. I think anybody who chose Alaska to live in because it is different than the Lower 48, because they can still catch fish that are not poisoned, might want to look into this some more."
Atcheson said the initiative will affect large scale future mines of more than 640 acres that would release toxins into the water. The RCC's concern regarding the Pebble Mine is not only its size and location, but the fact that eight other mining companies have claims in the Bristol Bay area.
"As soon as the Pebble gets going, there's going to be other mines there as well," Atcheson said.
Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, thinks it's important to put fish protection and water quality issues back before the voters. In addition to addressing the size and scope of large scale mining projects, Shavelson said the initiative would address the practice of establishing mixing zones, which allows a certain amount of pollution in salmon spawning streams.
"Mixing zones essentially embrace the long discounted notion that dilution is the solution to pollution," he said. "Whatever side of the fence you're on, everyone should agree in a democracy. Alaskans should have a right to decide whether salmon habitat and water quality should be priorities."
Atcheson said those who can't make it to Saturday's rally but want to add their signature to the initiative can go to River City Books in Soldotna, or Old Town Music and Already Read Books in Kenai, to sign. Members of the RRC and tribal councils are also picking up a lot of signatures in Bristol Bay as well as Anchorage while people have just started to sign the initiative in the Southeast. Rob Justice will perform, and food will be available at the rally.
To Whitney, even though he's concerned about the future of the streams and lakes of Bristol Bay, he says the initiative is not just about the Pebble gold and copper mine.
"It's ensuring we have clean water to drink in the state and the salmon can spawn safely," he said. "The single biggest reason for this rally is education. If (people) want to know, they should come and listen and then they can do their own research and draw their own conclusions."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com
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