Residents of Bristol Bay, Alaska, received an early holiday present when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the Pebble Mine a Clean Water Act permit that would have permitted a destructive and open pit mine in the middle of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. While these protections are not permanent and the legal fight continues, this denial marks a huge victory for concerned citizens, Alaska Natives and environmental activists who have led the fight to save this area for more than a decade.
Surrounded by remote, undeveloped landscapes, Bristol Bay showcases the solitude of the undisturbed natural world and serves as a critical ecosystem for North American salmon. The Pebble Mine would leave an ugly, toxic scar on the Alaskan landscape forever, as well as negatively affect the watershed and the livelihoods of those employed by the fishing industry.
The mine’s devastating impact became especially evident after Pebble Mine executives were caught on tape revealing that they did not expect to limit the mine’s lifespan to 20 years, as they claimed publicly. As a result, Pebble’s CEO resigned after showing that this foreign mining company should not be allowed to spoil one of the great fisheries of the world.
While conservation and economics are sometimes at odds and often complicated, this case is clear-cut. The government would be sacrificing an unparalleled and unspoiled wilderness with sustainable local jobs in tourism and fishing in the name of corporate greed and exploitation.
In return, Alaska would get a massive, noxious hole in the ground, the destruction of more than 3,000 acres of wetlands, and the construction of an 83-mile road and 188-mile pipeline, major ports and power plants. No matter how you examine the trade off, Pebble is a loss for all Alaskans.
The deal is nonsensical and, perhaps most importantly, 62 percent of Alaskans don’t want it. Additionally, the economics simply don’t work regardless of the environmental damage as the local sport fishing and hunting industries would be forever imperiled. Recreation and tourism spending in Bristol Bay bring $90 million annually to the state in the form of taxes and licenses alone — outside of income to local guides and establishments.
Anglers in Alaska spend around $1.4 billion each year on fishing trips, fishing equipment, and development and maintenance of land used primarily for the pursuit of sport fishing in the state. An estimated 37,000 fishing trips are taken annually to Bristol Bay freshwater fisheries, and tourists from outside of Alaska comprise about one-third of those trips.
Bristol Bay sport fishing supports almost 1,000 full- and part-time jobs, and when commercial fishing is included, Bristol Bay fisheries support more than 14,000 full- and part-time jobs, well below the 2,000 direct and indirect jobs parent company Northern Dynasty promised in a boom-or-bust industry. This number of place-based jobs is growing as the local native communities and the Alaska Native Regional Corporation recognize the economic opportunity in sportfishing.
Northern Dynasty already has too much invested in this project to let it go without a legal fight, but this permit denial is a significant hurdle.
While this is an important victory, it does not ensure permanent protection, which can only be achieved by reestablishing the Clean Water Act provisions that the Environmental Protection Agency stripped away in 2019. The incoming Biden Administration has an opportunity to permanently preserve America’s greatest salmon fishery.
Bristol Bay’s true goldmine, now and in the future, is its unspoiled condition and ability to sustain Alaska’s way of life.