On July 24 the Trump Administration’s Army Corps of Engineers released its final environmental impact statement regarding the Pebble Mine, setting the massive Southwest Alaska copper and gold project on track to receive the most important permits needed to break ground, perhaps within the month. Hunters, anglers, commercial fishermen, and area tribes have fiercely opposed the project for decades, but yesterday that chorus gained a loud and influential voice: the president’s eldest son.
Responding to a tweet from Nick Ayers, former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted: “As a sportsman who has spent plenty of time in the area I agree 100%. The headwaters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fisheries are too unique and fragile to take any chances with. #PebbleMine.”
Many believe that Trump Jr. was speaking directly to his father, who often communicates via Twitter. The administration is still deciding whether to issue the critical Clean Water Act permit and could do so this month—unless the Commander in Chief decides to intercede. The last time a scientific review process was completed in 2013, the administration began the process of severely restricting the project due to grave concerns about the impacts it would have on water quality and fisheries in the region, before getting tied up in lawsuits. The Trump Administration did away with those findings and began anew. The latest analysis found that under normal conditions, the mine “would not be expected to have a measurable effect on fish numbers and result in long-term changes to the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay.”
The Pebble Deposit, estimated to be one of the largest gold and copper lodes on Earth, sits on a high saddle dividing Upper Talarik Creek from the South Fork Koktuli River. Talarik drains into the massive Lake Iliamna, which feeds the Kvichak River, and finally Bristol Bay. The Koktuli drains into the Mulchatna, a major tributary of the Nushagak. The Nush’ and Kvichak produce the majority of the Bristol Bay sockeye run, the largest and most valuable wild salmon fishery on the planet, generating a $1.5 billion sustainable economy and 14,000 good jobs every year.
The proposed mine would carve a 1-mile-wide, 1/3-mile-deep hole in this wilderness landscape, according to Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble. The project would require building a gas pipeline all the way across Cook Inlet, a new port adjacent to Katmai National Park, an 80-mile haul road to the mine, 13 square miles of tailing ponds and facilities at the mine, and a 270-megawatt power plant—all in order to extract 70 million tons of rock every year. Even if the mine’s tailing ponds never leak their toxic slurry (many believe such leaks are likely in that seismically-active area) the development and road building alone would destroy the wild character of the Bristol Bay Region.
Drift gillnetters on the Bay aren’t the only ones who stand to suffer should this fishery collapse; several native tribes also depend on subsistence harvests of all five species of salmon. Dozens of sporting lodges guide and outfit for salmon, Dolly Varden, pike, grayling, lake trout, halibut, and some of the world’s largest native rainbow trout—not to mention moose, caribou, and brown bears in the area. Among the millions of sportsmen who have enjoyed that bountiful, pristine landscape is Donald Trump Jr.
“Once you’ve been to Bristol Bay, it’s glaringly obvious that building a mine in the heart of salmon country is an asinine idea,” said Nelli Williams, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska program director. “Anglers and hunters have opposed this project for almost 15 years. Pebble had their chance to prove the mine could be developed safely, but the review proved the opposite: that Pebble mine would undoubtedly jeopardize the fishery, jobs, and businesses. It’s time to deny the permit and allow salmon country to continue to thrive.”
Trout Unlimited and many other conservation groups have been aggressively petitioning the White House and other politicians about Pebble. On May 20, they delivered a letter to President Trump signed by 250 outdoors businesses and groups and more than 30,000 hunters and anglers, begging him to deny the Clean Water Act permit. Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy said that his state will also provide a thorough analysis of the mine proposal, although he has expressed his support for the mine in the past. Both of Alaska’s U.S. Senators, Murkowski and Sullivan, have said they are reviewing the environmental impact statement document to see whether it meets the high bar of scientific rigor and offers adequate protection for Bristol Bay. Neither has outright condemned the mine in the past.
“As I have repeatedly said, and included in my appropriations report language, adverse impacts to Alaska’s world-class salmon fishery and to the ecosystem of Bristol Bay are unacceptable,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.
MeatEater is among the outdoors businesses asking President Trump to deny the Pebble Partnership’s permits. Steven Rinella, the company’s founder and leader, recently recorded a podcast with Donald Trump Jr. He said decisions important as this one should transcend economic and political concerns.
“The fact that folks from such a wide variety of backgrounds and political persuasions are speaking out together against the Pebble Mine gives me hope,” Rinella said. “And not just hope that we’ll finally defeat the mine, but hope that partisanship does have its limits and that certain ideals are more important than party affiliations. Lately I’ve been pondering a theory, or concept, that I’m going to call ‘environmental nationalism.’ We have a patriotic duty to protect our nation. Guarding her natural ecosystems is a major part of that.”
Hunters and anglers from across the country have sworn to stand in front of earth-moving equipment to prevent the Pebble Mine from breaking ground—if they have to. That’s how deeply sportsmen and women care about this place. Those folks believe this to be one of our Edward Abbey moments, a time to channel Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold. Choices like these cut to the very heart of modern conservationism. But we’re not quite to the point of physical conflict yet. The legislative process still has a chance to block this mine. If you want to lend your voice to that chorus of opposition, you can do so here, but time is short.
Feature image by Tosh Brown.