Things are big in Alaska, including environmental battles, and none are bigger than the one brewing in Bristol Bay. That's the Bristol Bay of salmon fame, home of the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Mining interests want North America's biggest deposits of gold and copper, found upstream of Bristol Bay.
To get it, they're hoping to build one of the world's biggest mines, and the project would include a number of huge dams. The money involved is staggering, $300 billion in ore deposits, and $450 million in annual revenue from salmon. Claims and counterclaims make decisions difficult. Mine proposals insist that we can have wealth-generating mines and salmon too. But mine opponents believe that habitat destruction and waste disposal will kill salmon, bears, and caribou, and harm the people who depend on them.These struggles repeat the centuries-old debate about resource development in salmon country. So far, the victories have usually gone to resource developers. We've dammed, logged, and mined salmon habitat, and dewatered rivers for irrigation. Salmon mitigation projects have not delivered on promises, and salmon are in trouble throughout most of their range in the lower 48.
Un-development is actually becoming a real activity to restore salmon. Projects range in size from small culvert replacements to massive dam removal plans like the Elwha River restoration in Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Debate rages over taking out 4 huge dams on the lower Snake River. Most salmon biologists believe that the development plus mitigation approach is a failure and salmon protection requires protection from disruptive development.
Alaska has a chance to do things differently than the rest of salmon country, U.S.A. Alaska's current Governor, Republican Sarah Palin has fished in Bristol Bay and certainly knows what's at stake. Will Alaska protect natural ecosystems and their services, such as salmon production? Or rely on mitigation to protect salmon.
Image courtesy of National Geographic