Alaska is one of the few outdoor venues I know that consistently exceeds its own high expectations. That view may be difficult to sustain when you’re facing your third straight week of horizontal rain on a wilderness float trip or packing out a moose your friend shot a mile too far from the nearest floatplane lake. Nonetheless, the Great Land bewitched me when I first moved there 40 years ago, and it still does whenever I return.
But like float trips, moose hauling and other wonderful life experiences, Alaska comes with a catch—the byzantine nature of the state’s wildlife politics, which often seem better suited to a Third World banana republic than a modern, Western democracy. In the distant 49th state, far from major media outlets and regulatory bodies, strings get pulled and deals get made. Hunters and anglers all too often fail to assemble and intercede, and the results are usually disastrous for the wild resources upon which we depend.
Following the discovery of high-grade copper, gold and molybdenum ore near the village of Iliamna in 1988, a series of foreign-owned mining consortiums began preliminary development of what is now known as the Pebble Mine. The problem is that this huge open pit project, if constructed, would lie in a seismically active area that drains directly into Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest salmon fishery, which in turn provides the base of a complex food chain supporting bears, moose, caribou and people. Failure of a tailing pond dam similar to the 2014 Mount Polley disaster in British Columbia could destroy two entire watersheds.
Despite numerous independent engineering studies outlining the gravity of this threat and opposition from local residents, commercial and sport fishing interests, the Alaska Native community and a host of other stakeholders, the project has lurched forward in fits and starts for several decades. In 2016, mine backers themselves delayed the permitting process in hopes of more favorable treatment from the new administration in Washington. They got it when now-disgraced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that he would not withdraw recently enacted exemptions to the Clean Water Act that favored mine backers. At several points during the dispute, mine opponents thought that the project was as dead as a spawned out red salmon, but it has kept coming back to life. Pruitt’s replacement, current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, recused himself from all matters pertaining to the mine, because the lobbying firm he used to work for has lobbied on behalf of Pebble Limited Partnership. The Pebble Mine saga is complex, and readers should visit savebristolbay.org for more details.
“Sportsmen and women travel to Bristol Bay from around the globe to experience what is some of the finest wilderness hunting and fishing anywhere,” said Scott Hed, director of the Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska. “The fishery is a renewable economic engine valued at $1.5 billion annually and supports 14,000 jobs.”
Even Alaska’s powerful, late Senator, Ted Stevens, who seldom met a development project he didn’t like, called the Pebble project “the wrong mine in the wrong place.” Yet, it keeps coming back.
Conflicts between development interests and conservationists regarding oil and gas drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been going on even longer. Consisting of 19 million acres of pristine wilderness stretching from the Brooks Range to the Beaufort Sea, ANWR is both the nation’s largest wildlife refuge and one of the least visited, simply because of logistics. (There are no roads to or within the refuge.)
Created in 1980, development in most of the refuge was initially prohibited without specific authorization by Congress. The exception was the 1.5 million-acre strip of coastal plain known as “the 1002 Area,” where decisions about future drilling were initially deferred. The oil and gas industry has had its eye on this area ever since, despite strident opposition from both Native residents and a broad consortium of conservation groups. The current administration included authorization for drilling there in the 2017 tax act, likely in return for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) crucial support on the bill.
In addition to being part of the largest and most spectacular parcel of true wilderness left in the country, the 1002 Area is also crucial calving habitat for the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Despite industry claims about the necessity of developing the area, known reserves would only satisfy our country’s fossil fuel needs for a little more than one year. A single year’s supply of fossil fuel hardly seems worth the value of this wilderness, but Congress enacted legislation in 2017 to fast-track approval for drilling.
I recently spoke with Jason Leppi, a watershed ecologist with the Wilderness Society who is passionate about hunting in remote places. “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to wolves, musk oxen, game fish including grayling and sea run char, Dall sheep, all three species of bears, and the Porcupine Caribou Herd,” Leppi said. “Hunters from indigenous communities depend on the caribou to feed their villages. We have a moral obligation to protect this vital habitat.”
I’ve made numerous float trips on the Koktuli and Mulchatna rivers, two pristine waterways that would bear the brunt of any disaster at the Pebble Mine. I’ve also spent plenty of time in the Arctic Refuge, bowhunting for sheep and caribou, fly fishing, and simply absorbing its grandeur. The idea of losing those opportunities for the sake of foreign mining investors’ profits in the case of the Pebble Mine, or small reserves of oil and gas in the case of the Arctic Refuge, is simply too depressing for words.
While these two issues have both received national attention, other recent examples of political malfeasance counter to the interests of anglers and hunters in Alaska have flown beneath the national media’s radar, such as the effort to overturn roadless area designations throughout the Tongass National Forest.
The Far North seems to enjoy more than its share of the political chicanery around the development of sensitive and wild resources. Understanding why can be difficult for those who’ve never lived there, but some factors are fairly obvious.
The first is the sheer amount of money at stake. Extractive industry drove the state’s economy when I first got there and it still does, although an end to limitless oil wealth is now clearly on the horizon. One political pundit once observed that “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” and Alaska has certainly enjoyed its share.
The second is the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon conferred by the state’s remoteness. Despite its size and wilderness appeal, the Arctic Refuge barely receives a thousand visitors annually. Far less visit the remote Pebble site. It’s hard for most Americans to feel concerned about the future of a location they will never see.
However, I think that the true heart of the matter lies in the diversity, complexity and competition for resources among stakeholders in the outdoors community itself. There’s really nothing like it anywhere else in the country. Recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and tribal subsistence netters represent significant political constituencies that have squabbled over fisheries resources for decades. Drift gill-netters fight with set-netters and seiners, and charter operators fight with DIY anglers and everyone else—conflicts that have only intensified as Alaskan fisheries resources have started to dwindle due to a complex interplay of environmental factors and overfishing. Chinook salmon returns are at an all-time low throughout much of the state.
The situation is even more divisive among hunters. The least favored demographic under Alaska law are non-residents. State residents living along the road system and in Alaska’s urban communities (such as they are) come next in the allocation of wild game resources. I find it hard to object to most of the state’s regulations favoring residents over non-residents, even though I now fall into the latter category myself. Someone has to keep the state going when it’s 40-below and you haven’t seen the sun for a month, and there’s no reason hunting regulations shouldn’t reward those who do.
Some tension among various stakeholders in the allocation of wild game resources is inevitable almost everywhere, but the situation in Alaska is particularly conflicted because of the state’s “rural subsistence users” statutes. Subsistence regulations allow about 20% of the state’s population to hunt and fish under rules that are much less restrictive than those other residents must follow.
Creating two classes of resident hunters has led to conflict and resentment, but even perpetual arguments over subsistence aren’t the end of the story regarding Alaska’s fractured, divisive outdoor community. There’s the guide lobby, which has always been adept at looking out for its own interests. Native corporations, which own the majority of the state’s privately held land, have tremendous clout in Juneau. While Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game was long regarded as one of the country’s best, recent appointments to the boards of game and fisheries have increasingly been awarded to politicians with little or no background in fisheries or wildlife biology. In February, Alaska’s new governor, Mike Dunleavy, appointed a former spokesman for one of the Pebble Mine partners to lead the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation—the agency that will oversee permitting for the mine in the months to come.
This divisiveness illustrates a basic principle right out of Sun Tzu’s classic “The Art of War:” divide and conquer. All too often, the components of Alaska’s fractious outdoors community are too busy squabbling with each other to defend the state’s wild resources from assaults by well-financed development interests that may not even be American, much less Alaskan.
Pebble Mine proponents’ initial tactics focused on exploiting historical differences between commercial fishermen, recreational anglers and the local Native community. But opponents of the mine continue to wage a long, brave battle in defense of Bristol Bay salmon. Much of their success (thus far) has come from bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders who have not always cooperated effectively in the past.
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Alaska is deliberately being used as a testing ground for bad wildlife policy. The state’s remoteness helps it avoid scrutiny, there’s still plenty of oil money around to help grease the regulatory skids, and Alaska’s Congressional delegations seem all too compliant. So, keep an eye on the Great Land. Bad policy being test-driven there may be coming soon to a state near you.