As a longtime Alaska resident, I understand the complexities and challenges of making a living in this state. Over the past 50 years, I have worked various jobs from gold mining on dredges at Nyak, to commercial fishing in Bristol Bay, flying game and fish surveys for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and guiding sport hunters and fishermen in numerous regions of the state.
Over that period I have come to realize just how unique and valuable the wildlife, fish and wilderness of Alaska has become in a world seemingly hell bent on accumulating “wealth.” Recently, numerous massive foreign mining corporations have been eyeing Alaska’s vast roadless areas for potential exploitation, and the proposed massive Pebble Mine project at the head of Bristol Bay is but one of them. The majority of Alaskans oppose the proposed mine, and multiple federal agencies — in both Republican and Democratic administrations — determined the mine is not compatible with our way of life, and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed.
A little over a week ago, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, headed by a man I once voted for, jumped the gun on the typical legal process by demanding the Supreme Court hear the state’s request to overturn EPA restrictions on mining in the headwaters of Bristol Bay. Never mind that Pebble’s Canadian parent company has yet to file suit, or the fact that lower courts have not weighed in on the latest EPA action. Dunleavy saw fit to use a deeply unpopular mine to test an obscure legal theory that, if upheld, would be a “stunning shift in both the structure of the Court’s docket and the role of the Court writ large,” according to one Constitutional law expert.
I won’t attempt to get into the legal merits of whether the Supreme Court must hear a lawsuit brought by a state, but think it’s fair to ask why the governor is spending significant state resources — including hiring expensive Washington, D.C. lawyers — to challenge more than 50 years of Supreme Court precedent, all to give Pebble a lifeline it doesn’t deserve.
Dunleavy is trying to tip the scales strongly in favor of one sector of our economy — mining — at the expense of several others, namely hunting, fishing and tourism.
Indeed, Alaskans who hunt, fish or otherwise appreciate our state’s natural resources should be offended by some of the claims made in the lawsuit. For instance, the suit alleges that, “Due to (the Pebble mine site’s) remoteness and lack of infrastructure and development, the only economically productive use for the land is mining.”
If he truly believes Bristol Bay is only good for mining, it is ironic Dunleavy filed suit in the middle of summer, when countless boats are in Bristol Bay’s waters and the region’s lodges are teeming with tourists who happily contribute millions to the state’s economy for the chance to hook the catch of the lifetime. Visitors will continue to spend their money long after the fish complete their upstream journey, when they’ll join thousands of Alaskans who are also hoping to bag moose, bear, caribou or any number of large land mammals and birds.
I hope the governor understands that commercial fishing, sport fishing, and hunting in Bristol Bay are responsible for an estimated economic benefit of more than $2 billion. And that’s not even accounting for subsistence hunting and fishing, which the people of Bristol Bay can ill afford to lose. These benefits are possible because of the lifeblood of Bristol Bay — our clean water and unspoiled land — that would be put at permanent risk should Pebble move forward.
Once EPA (and before it, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) weighed in and confirmed what we knew all along — the Pebble is the wrong mine in the wrong place — I had hope that Dunleavy would quietly end his longstanding support of Pebble mine. After all, he was already occupying a lonely island, at odds with our congressional delegation and legislators in Juneau and Washington, D.C., who don’t appear to have much interest in reviving Pebble.
What’s more, between the Willow project, Graphite One and Donlin, our state has some notable recent resource development wins. If anything, these projects moving forward is another indication of the unique threat presented by Pebble. No one is claiming Alaska can’t develop its resources. But that development can’t come at the expense of an existing economy and way of life that Alaskans hold dear.
I have faith the Supreme Court will soundly reject the governor’s arguments. But the lawsuit gives me no faith the governor will abandon his obsession with Pebble mine, no matter what it ultimately costs Alaska and its people. It is also a reminder that as much as most of us want it to be, Pebble is far from dead.
As has always been the case, it will be up to ordinary Alaskans to remain united and keep up the pressure to ensure long-term safeguards for Bristol Bay, so that it always remains free from the Pebble mine.
Phil Shoemaker, a longtime Bristol Bay resident, has a degree in Wildlife Management, is a licensed Alaska master hunting guide and commercial pilot, and has lived and worked across the majority of the state. He and his family, including three grandchildren, work and reside from their family homestead in Southwest Alaska.
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