As Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery hits record numbers in 2021, strategies gather support to protect the region forever from destructive large-scale mining.
Last week the Bristol Bay salmon run threatened by the embattled Pebble Mine reached an astonishing all-time high of 64.2 million fish, surpassing the previous record of 62.9 million and far exceeding the projected season total of 54 million. And the season is still going. The singular productivity of Bristol Bay and the watershed that feeds it are in a class by themselves, eclipsing year after year all other salmon fisheries elsewhere in the state and beyond—many increasingly plagued by disappointing fish returns.
There could hardly be a more compelling argument than these numbers for the goal pursued for decades by the people of Bristol Bay—that is, permanent protection from the Pebble Mine or other large-scale mining for the region and its fisheries, its communities, and its wildlife. Lasting freedom from the fear of what destructive mining would do to their families, their culture, their economy and the salmon-based way of life that has sustained their people for millennia.
With the momentum of consensus growing to turn that goal into reality, here is a brief summary of independent but mutually supportive strategies now in play to achieve it:
In February 2021 United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB)—representing 80 percent of the region’s residents—formally requested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to take action under Clean Water Act Section 404(c) for lasting protection of the Bristol Bay region. That request has generated broad-based support, including from commercial fishermen and hundreds of other conservation, hunting, and recreational stakeholders, as well as investment firms representing more than $105 billion in assets. In early May, NRDC submitted a comprehensive legal memorandum in support of the request, and last week Trustees for Alaska, on behalf of a coalition of predominantly Alaska-based conservation organizations, submitted a letter summarizing the extensive scientific record of potential harm from large-scale mining.
This administrative request received a legal boost last month when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—in Trout Unlimited et al. v. Pirzadeh et al., No. 20-35504 (9th. Cir. June 17, 2021)—revived litigation filed in Fall 2019 against EPA challenging its illegal withdrawal of the 2014 Proposed Determination under Section 404(c). The court of appeals returned the case to the trial court for consideration of whether EPA had met the regulatory standard for withdrawal – that is, a showing that “unacceptable adverse effects” on protected resources were “not likely” if the Pebble Mine is developed. Earlier this month, arguing that this is a standard that the agency simply cannot meet consistent with the scientific evidence, NRDC sent EPA an analysis of the decision and its clear implications for EPA action:
[G]iven these circumstances, we believe it is inconceivable that EPA would seek on remand to defend the merits of the manifestly political withdrawal of its comprehensively scientific Proposed Determination. . . . Now that the issue of reviewability has been resolved by the Ninth Circuit, the agency’s course is clear: It must move forward with reinstatement of its Proposed Determination and grant UTBB’s February 2021 formal request for Section 404(c) action to protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine or other large-scale mining.
Similar requests are imminent from stakeholders in the region, including from UTBB.
In July the Bristol Bay Defense Fund—a coalition of Bristol Bay Tribes, commercial fishermen, businesses, Alaska nonprofits, and NRDC—rolled out a new media campaign urging President Biden to fulfill his campaign promise and EPA to permanently end the threat of the Pebble Mine using its authority under Section 404(c). The multi-week TV, print, and digital media campaign, targeting the DC beltway, has included paid advertising in the Washington Post, New York Times, Politico and CNN. Details of this initiative are described here.
Last Fall Alaska’s Senior Senator Lisa Murkowski announced her opposition to the Pebble Mine, calling it the “wrong mine in the wrong place,” and committed to pursue congressional action to protect Bristol Bay in the current legislative session. During the July 4th recess, Senator Murkowski visited the region and, in meetings with Bristol Bay leaders, reiterated her commitment. A coalition of Bristol Bay groups, led by UTBB and Bristol Bay Native Corporation, has since been working not only to secure Section 404(c) action by EPA, but to develop a legislative proposal this summer for consideration by Senator Murkowski and others that would foreclose future large-scale mining in Bristol Bay.
In June the Pedro Bay Corp., Tribal landowner on the western shore of Lake Iliamna, overwhelmingly approved a conservation deal with the Conservation Fund to sell conservation easements for $20 million on 44,000 acres, including on the preferred right-of-way identified by Pebble for its transportation and infrastructure corridor. This decision is the latest commitment by Pedro Bay Corp. to its continuing opposition to the Pebble project. If the funding is secured by the end of 2022, it will force Northern Dynasty back to square one in identifying another route for access to the mine site.
In their “America the Beautiful” report to the National Climate Task Force, the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, and the Council on Environmental Quality issued a report on the Administration’s conservation vision, recommending protection of 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by 2030. It did so not just for reasons of biodiversity protection but because achieving this goal is essential to meeting the challenge of climate change. Explicitly cited as an example of land appropriate for protection on the initiative of indigenous communities is Bristol Bay, where “indigenous communities, and local businesses have worked together to conserve the health and productivity of unparalleled marine resources.” This report provides one more reason why permanent protection of this irreplaceable landscape is both warranted and necessary to our collective future.
Each of these strategies represents a significant effort led by the people of Bristol Bay to secure the future of an extraordinary salmon-based eco-system that we simply cannot afford to lose. And losing that ecosystem is exactly what will happen if we fail.
With Northern Dynasty’s share value down over 80 percent in the last year alone—down over 97 percent in the last decade—consider this:
Is there a compelling need to risk this natural gem—this endlessly generous wild salmon fishery—by allowing a failing financial venture like Northern Dynasty (or, for that matter, any mining company) to mine its headwaters?
The answer is unquestionably no. Today there is growing momentum for permanent protection, and NRDC is committed to that goal.