Fearless Alaskan Financier and friend of Donald Trump fought to defend Bristol Bay and its communities from reckless mining scheme
Bob Gillam, who died suddenly last week in Anchorage at the age of 72, was a rare being. In fact, I've never had a friend quite like him. I wasn’t a member of his closest brain trust, he wasn’t a funder, and our politics had virtually nothing in common. But over the past decade I had the unique privilege of getting to know and work with him in battling a destructive foreign mining scheme whose defeat he considered, in a life of extraordinary success, his proudest professional achievement.
His training and expertise were in economics and finance, and he worked relentlessly both to achieve the pinnacle of professional and financial success and to stay there. Over the years, he created a multi-billion-dollar investment firm and, in 2015, he earned Forbes Magazine’s designation as Alaska’s wealthiest person.
He was outspoken, he was never afraid to speak truth to power, and from time to time—when needed—he knew how to do battle.
For almost fifteen years, along with an unprecedented coalition of Alaskan tribes, commercial and recreational fishermen, hunters, businesses, and conservationists, he took on the reckless Pebble Mine with an intensity that has made it one of the most widely condemned development projects anywhere. He did so, because, as he wrote in a November 2017 opinion piece for the Bristol Bay Times (reprinted in the Anchorage Daily News and the Homer Tribune):
...more than any other development proposal in Alaska’s history, it threatens to forfeit to foreign mining companies an invaluable part of our heritage, something Alaskans cannot afford to lose—and will never stop defending—Bristol Bay: the last great salmon fishery on the planet.
His was a big personality—no doubt—and, if he chose to do so, he could take up all the oxygen in virtually any room he entered. He was an adversary’s worst nightmare, as The Pebble Partnership (and its embattled and desperately underfunded Canadian owner Northern Dynasty Minerals) have learned the hard way. He was courageous, impossible to intimidate, and not available for purchase.
Bob Gillam was a master strategist, and he loved to talk about his battle plans, which we did every few months—by phone, over dinner at Club Paris in Anchorage, or once, when he was in Los Angeles to see his Wharton School classmate Donald Trump, over breakfast at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. He devised and then implemented complex, multi-layered battle plans that sometimes took years to roll out, ranging from litigation to electoral politics and initiatives to “shock and awe” communications to grinding community-to-community, door-to-door political organizing. He directed each plan of attack with a military precision and focus that a five-star general might envy, commanding his team of consultants, advisors, and allies with a conviction that left no room for doubt. He didn’t always win, but he never gave up, and he made sure that, with lessons learned and enough funding, he would eventually prevail.
He relished his self-bestowed title as “The Mayor of Fist City”—richly earned over the span of his professional life—and, in 2017, he toyed with the possibility of a stint as Interior Secretary in the Trump Administration and, earlier this year, even a run for Governor of Alaska. But at a Lake Clark gathering of allies in 2015 to celebrate his successful “Bristol Bay Forever” initiative campaign, he was visibly moved by a small plaque from NRDC and its 2.4 million members thanking him as “The Savior of Bristol Bay.” While there is no single person responsible for defending everything that the Pebble Mine puts at risk, there is no single person who has done more to accomplish that end than Bob Gillam.
Much of this is a matter of public record, but there is more to say.
Bob had a huge heart and a deep, unshakeable loyalty to his family, his friends, and the people of Bristol Bay. To my NRDC colleague Taryn Kiekow Heimer and me, Bob made sure that his warmth, generosity, and appreciation for NRDC’s engagement against Pebble were never in doubt.
I first met him in Los Angeles in 2010, when he flew down to introduce himself and thank us for a full-page London Financial Times ad we had run targeting the Pebble Mine on Earth Day that year. We met for about two hours, and that evening he joined us for an NRDC event featuring Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and the stunning Bristol Bay photographs of renowned landscape photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum.
Since then, accompanied by colleagues, we travelled almost annually to Bob’s lodge on Lake Clark for strategy meetings. He was a host second to none, and because he understood that there is no better fishing hole on Earth than Bristol Bay, he made sure that, between sessions, all present got out on the water to fish. He arranged fly-overs of the mine site and its potential access corridor, and most recently, just two months ago in mid-July, he made sure that I got a first-hand, bird’s eye view of the latest access proposal—a dangerous delusion, involving barges crossing Lake Iliamna in the dead of winter and overland passage through prime brown bear habitat and gale force winds to the debris-filled shores and rocky waters of Kamishak Bay.
Bob dismissed it as “preposterous.” And preposterous it is. After all is said and done, the Pebble Mine is the best example of the worst the world has to offer—an unconscionable scheme by a Canadian company to enrich itself and its shareholders by impoverishing everyone else and the irreplaceable natural heritage of Bristol Bay that sustains us all.
But it would be a grave mistake to think that the project Bob Gillam fought so hard for so many years will ever fall of its own dead weight. He understood that the battle will never be forfeited by Northern Dynasty—a company with no reason to exist but the imperative of finding a buyer who will take the Pebble project off its hands. And I expect he understood that he might not be around to celebrate the project’s definitive demise. As he explained last year:
No one ever expected this battle to be easy, but it is a battle Alaskans have to win, however long it takes, for our state, our salmon, our communities, our people, and our future.
Bob Gillam will be missed by countless people, in countless ways. But the fight against the Pebble Mine will continue through the unrelenting opposition of the broadest coalition of opposition ever assembled in the State of Alaska to any project. That is exactly what he would have hoped for and expected.
From NRDC and its members, thank you Bob for all you did. We will never forget you.