Stopping Pebble Mine: Fund Pedro Bay Rivers Conservation Now

Funding deadline looms for agreement between Alaska Native village corporation and two land conservation organizations to protect 44,000 acres of salmon habitat in Upper Bristol Bay, blocking access corridor needed for widely condemned mine.

Knutson Bay, Bristol Bay Region

Credit: Jason Ching

No one can doubt that Northern Dynasty Minerals and its wholly owned subsidiary The Pebble Partnership (“Pebble”) will fight to their last corporate breath to build the destructive Pebble Mine in the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery.  The project is their only asset—their only reason for being—and their CEOs have been infamously caught on videotape describing their grand plan to turn the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery—the Bristol Bay fishery—into a massive mining district. 

They will continue to fight, even as EPA action to veto the project is advancing and even though Senator Lisa Murkowski has promised legislation to secure the future of the Bristol Bay region.  Both are essential strategies for long-term protection of this national treasure, and both have strong, even overwhelming, support in the Bristol Bay region.

But the geographic focus of EPA’s proposed veto under Clean Water Act section 404(c) is narrow, not watershed-wide, leaving the possibility that, in addition to Pebble’s inevitable legal challenge to EPA action, Northern Dynasty or a future mining company might attempt an end run.  And Senator Murkowski has yet to deliver on her promise to introduce legislation for watershed-wide protection.

The good news is that, in addition to these two critical advocacy strategies, there is also a conservation strategy—a strategy that, this year, provides a singular opportunity to fortify EPA or congressional actions for lasting protection of Bristol Bay.  This opportunity is the conservation agreement approved in 2021 by landowner Pedro Bay Corporation (“Pedro Bay”), a Bristol Bay Native village corporation that has for years withstood intense pressure from Pebble for access to its land. 

Last year Pedro Bay negotiated the agreement with The Conservation Fund and the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, two non-profit conservation organizations that specialize in preserving valuable natural habitat.  The agreement—and the Pedro Bay Rivers Project it enables—seek not only to protect 44,000 acres of pristine wild salmon habitat along Lake Iliamna's eastern shore but to block permanently the land access that Pebble needs for the transportation and pipeline infrastructure to service its massive open pit gold and copper mine.   

The price of this conservation is $20 million—less than $460 per acre—to be raised by December 31, 2022.  Given the exceptional conservation benefits that would flow from the agreement, it’s a deadline—just over six months away—that we can’t afford to miss.

Though advocacy is a powerful and essential tool, property rights endure. When both are aligned, durable conservation—and our children’s future—are unquestionably the beneficiaries.

The fact that the agreement would strike so significant a blow against the Pebble project is, of course, reason enough—a poisonous project that, over the past decade, has become an international pariah, even within the mining industry.  It’s a project that presents a generational choice between an essentially permanent supply of food and an essentially permanent supply of poison, and it must be stopped—for good.

But there are other reasons, too, that make the Pedro Bay Rivers Project an exceptional opportunity for conservation within the 40,000 square mile Bristol Bay watershed:

First, the Pedro Bay Rivers Project would protect 44,000 acres of high value spawning habitat in the top three major salmon producing sub-watersheds in the Iliamna region—the Pile River, Iliamna River, and Knutson Creek watersheds, generating 4.3 million sockeye salmon each year, with their unique contribution to the critically important genetic diversity of Bristol Bay salmon region-wide.  As salmon runs elsewhere have shown disappointing numbers in recent years, the Bristol Bay region has continued to produce record numbers, and this summer alone Alaska Fish and Game is predicting a run of an astounding 73.4 million fish.  In addition, the easements will protect valuable habitat for other species of concern, including moose, seal, brown bear, wolves, and migratory birds.  The conservation value of these acres in this location—on the shores of vast Lake Iliamna, the largest freshwater body in all of Alaska—is enormous.

Pedro Bay Project Map

Pedro Bay Project Map

Credit: The Conservation Fund

Second, the Pedro Bay Rivers Project provides direct benefits to a Bristol Bay Native community that has not only stewarded for generations the pristine salmon-spawning watersheds that the agreement would protect but has also been steadfast in its resistance to the Pebble Mine.  The community of Pedro Bay deserves our support for their unwavering commitment to the salmon even in the face of significant economic and political pressures for years from Pebble and their agents. 

The Pedro Bay Rivers Project thus presents a rare opportunity for international stakeholders to join in and support the people of Pedro Bay in their courageous conservation effort.  A failure to take this opportunity would be felt today in the failure of the Pedro Bay Rivers Project, but its certain future consequence would be that Bristol Bay Native defense of salmon habitat (including resistance to the Pebble Mine or to future destructive developments like it) would be, at best, a tougher sell or, at worst, a losing cause. 

Third, because the challenging topography makes the road through Pedro Bay the only feasible access between upper Bristol Bay and the deep water of Cook Inlet, that route will undoubtedly be in demand for future development projects.  Funding of this agreement, therefore, will provide invaluable future security against yet-unknown threats to the region’s natural habitat and the diverse species that depend on it.  Lasting protection requires continuing vigilance against not just the Pebble Mine but the inevitable intrusions of other international development corporations seeking access to Bristol Bay’s resources without regard to the health of the salmon or the local communities that depend on it.  

Finally, it should not be doubted that, if this agreement and The Pedro Bay Rivers Project that it enables are allowed to fail for lack of funding—a mere $20 million for 44,000 acres of pristine Bristol Bay salmon habitat—it will be a collective conservation failure of enormous proportions, the loss of an outstanding international conservation opportunity, and a needless step toward the abyss of biodiversity loss that is threatening natural ecosystems on a global scale.

But if it succeeds—if this funding deadline can be met—the agreement will become a model for cooperative conservation that inevitably will inspire similar efforts both in the region and potentially around the world. Other Bristol Bay communities, determined to protect the health of their subsistence resources, are likely to follow suit to protect the salmon that have sustained their way of life for generations.

This is the choice that The Pedro Bay Rivers Project presents, and the answer is clear:

Fund it now

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