A Pebble in the Water

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve is home to Native people, long-time Alaskans, and thriving salmon runs. But plans for one of the world's biggest gold and copper mines could change all that.


By Rosanne Pagano


In black-spruce country better suited to goshawks and grizzlies, Iowa-born Dick Proenneke—rancher, mechanic and master woodworker—constructed a cabin that for thousands the world over symbolizes the majesty, abundance, and solitude of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, a 4-million-acre outback just 90 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Proenneke chronicled his cabin building and survivalist life in video and journals that reveal a deliberate attempt to live with, not merely off, the land. He first retreated to the base of berry-carpeted Crag Mountain in 1968, one year before man would walk on the moon. The prospect of new frontiers prompted Proenneke, who lived here on his own for 30 years, to doubt the limits of human wants.

“[Folks] keep expanding their needs until they are dependent on too many things and too many other people,” he wrote 36 years ago. Gazing about the 12-foot-by-16-foot log cabin he’d built by hand, Proenneke considered the overstuffed houses in the world beyond serene Twin Lakes: “How many things in the average American home could be eliminated,” he wondered, “if the question were asked, ‘Must I really have this?’”

For Alaska Natives whose heritage is inseparable from pristine lands surrounding Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, for Bristol Bay fishermen dependent on world-renowned runs of wild salmon, and for increasing numbers of visitors who treasure the region’s protected rivers and wildlife, Proenneke’s challenge is more urgent than ever.

Because a valley on state land just 15 miles from the park’s southwest border—and some 100 miles upriver from the world’s most productive sockeye salmon fishery—sits on an untapped storehouse of gold and copper that may surpass any other deposit on Earth. Although most of the minerals are found in low-grade deposits, the profit to be made from the Pebble Mine is staggering: In months before the global financial crisis, Canadian-based developers were predicting the deposit could eventually produce $345–$500 billion in metals and generate hundreds of top-dollar jobs for 40 or 50 years.

So vast is the potential within the four-square-mile claim, divided into two sites, that in 2007, after two years of exploratory drilling, the outer limits of the Pebble East deposit remained a mystery. But bigger questions loom: How will massive open-pit and underground mining efforts move forward without harming the interdependent, vast network of lakes, rivers, and streams? How will one of the last big runs of wild Pacific salmon and a commercial fishing industry worth up to $100 million a year continue to thrive while huge earthmovers extract 42 billion pounds of copper and 40 million ounces of gold from a bed of sulfur? As Proenneke said, must we really have this?

A Quick Escape

In a state where airplanes are nearly as a commonplace as cars, Lake Clark’s 4 million acres amount to wilderness within reach. A 90-minute flight from Anchorage through the narrow mountain valleys via small bush plane makes for some of the most spectacular in-flight entertainment anywhere. The park and preserve take in jagged peaks of the Alaska and Aleutian mountain ranges; a rainforest coast typical of Southeast Alaska; tundra plateau representative of the Arctic; and two active volcanoes—Iliamna and Redoubt. Lake Clark’s wildlife ranges from wood frogs to wolves, birds to moose. Herds of migrating caribou roam here, and returns of sockeye salmon run into the tens of millions each season. Flourishing side by side are a tourism industry dating to the 1930s and indigenous cultures in place for nearly 10,000 years.

But the region is much more than a model of multiuse terrain: For millions of consumers around the world, for sport and commercial fishermen alike, Bristol Bay is synonymous with top-quality fish. As early as 1872, the region’s abundant salmon were being processed for West Coast markets, earning praise as much superior to Columbia River salmon. Today, Bristol Bay brims with pristine, abundant red salmon issuing from three great rivers—the Naknek, the Nushagak, and the Kvichak, whose headwaters lie within Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. If developed, the Pebble Mine would occupy land at the center of Nushagak and Kvichak River salmon spawning grounds.

And that worries Lake Clark Superintendent Joel Hard, who believes Bristol Bay salmon are Southwest Alaska’s premier renewable resource. “I can’t think of a worse place for a mine than the headwaters of Bristol Bay,” he says. As a former director of Alaska State Troopers Fish and Wildlife Protection Division, Hard believes that the productive Bristol Bay region surrounding Lake Clark National Park and Preserve represents the pulse of Alaska.

“The Bristol Bay region is a bench-mark for understanding the environmental health of the state,” Hard says, as he considers potential effects of mining. “If this region of the state is not healthy, it doesn’t bode well for the rest. Bristol Bay is that important.”

Hard says that Anglo American and Northern Dynasty, the primary corporations involved, have been responsive to Park Service concerns. So far. A proposed power transmission corridor through the heart of wilderness in Lake Clark Pass was dropped at the Park Service’s urging. But as exploratory rigs sample hundreds of parcels of land, interest in Pebble has prompted at least eight other companies to stake claims, increasing pressure for future roads, power, ports, and housing. It’s unclear how development may accommodate an economic cornerstone like fishing, but so far mine developers are saying the right things. John Shively, chief executive of Anchorage-based Pebble Partnership, a consortium of site developers Anglo American and Northern Dynasty, has stressed that if fish can’t be protected, “we don’t have a project.”

A former state commissioner of natural resources, Shively worked with an Alaska Native-owned corporation to develop lead and zinc prospects at Red Dog, the state’s largest mine. In August 2008, he told the New York Times that placing Alaska’s two precious commodities—fish and metals—next to each other might be God’s test, “just to see what people would do.”

The answer is starting to take shape at Iliamna, an isolated port less than 10 miles from the park unit’s southwest corner. The community’s economy has long accommodated hunting and gathering pursued by Alaska Native people and upscale lodges that began luring sport anglers and hunters in the 1930s. Only ten years ago, Iliamna’s population was just beyond 100, but over the past year it has turned into a base camp for preliminary exploration at Pebble, complete with state-approved plans for improvements to mountain road developments underwritten by a $7-million federal earmark. Although some towns people are content with company-town perks like service-industry jobs, an upgraded landing strip, and big rents paid for worker housing, others wonder whether changes are actually an improvement. For instance, helicopters now depart Iliamna routinely, ferrying crews and equipment north to Pebble where exploratory drilling and engineering and environmental studies are under way.

“We hear those helicopters every day,” says Jack Hobson, tribal council president of Nondalton, a Dena'ina Athabascan settlement of about 900 people living 14 miles east of the Pebble site, on the border of the park unit. “We were told the helicopters wouldn’t bother us, but you can hear them for miles.” Hobson says active drill rigs and vibration from helicopter propellers are making it harder to hunt caribou, which provide a crucial source of food for Nondalton residents through the winter. And if thousands of mining workers descend upon the Lake Clark region, new residents could apply for the right to subsistence hunt in the park a year later, increasing the competition for big game.

Even preliminary mining activity may disrupt calving grounds and shift historic migration routes of the famed Mulchatna herd, numbering more than 100,000 animals and ranging the foothill lakes and tundra plains of Lake Clark’s western preserve and beyond. Hobson and his neighbors have begun to wonder if recent hunts—requiring three days and a 300-mile round trip on snowmobiles—will replace typical treks of just 20 miles when caribou were more plentiful and the price of gasoline was within reach.

A Measured Response

Whereas Iliamna has limited traditional ties to Lake Clark’s park lands and its residents have generally supported the mine, residents of Nondalton are more reluctant. In 2008, nearly three-quarters of the locals favored a statewide initiative that would have strengthened environmental standards for salmon streams, essentially barring industrial-sized mines like Pebble. Some $10 million poured into the Measure 4 campaign, the costliest in state history; the mining industry outspent the initiative’s supporters by a three-to-one margin.

Critics argued that Measure 4 would have hobbled mining, a storied Alaska activity that evokes the state’s gold-panning pioneers and today’s large-scale industry worth nearly $1 billion a year. Yet Alaska’s experience with industrial mining remains mixed: In 2001, owners of northwest Alaska’s Red Dog mine near remote Kotzebue paid roughly $830,000 in civil penalties to settle air-quality violations arising from the zinc and lead mine. Alleged violations of water- pollution regulations may prompt the company to invest an additional $120 million for a wastewater pipeline.

Although some observers try to reduce the Pebble dispute to a stark choice between industry or the environment, those closest to the fish—Bristol Bay fishermen themselves—believe that protecting salmon is simply the best way to preserve a sustainable regional economy. That puts them on the same side of the fence as jewelers like Tiffany & Company, which publicly pledged not to purchase gold produced at Pebble.

In days before the vote on Measure 4, with the race nearly deadlocked, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, wife of a lifelong Bristol Bay fisherman, announced she was “taking off her governor’s hat for a moment” and urging Alaskans to defeat the measure. She got her wish. When the ballots were counted in August, Measure 4 earned less than 40 percent of the vote.

But Michelle Ravenmoon believes the battle is not over. A Port Alsworth resident whose Dena'ina roots go back generations, Ravenmoon coordinates subsistence hunting at Lake Clark, a practice crucial to survival as well as upholding traditional ways. Ravenmoon believes national attention focused on Pebble will heighten interest in diversifying Bristol Bay’s economy and deflect mining. Eco-tourism—a niche that attracts travelers seeking unspoiled places—is already gaining ground: In Nondalton, a new tour business owned by a Native Alaskan offers boat rides, berry picking, and fish-camp excursions to places typically visited only by Dena'ina people.

Ravenmoon insists she’s not against people earning money. But she’s convinced that industrial development—along with its increase in pollution, roads, and people—will imperil Dena'ina ways and detract from national parks and preserves at Lake Clark and Katmai to the south. According to a study sponsored in part by NPCA and based on figures from 2006, Katmai and Lake Clark account for about 80,000 visitors a year. Estimated contributions to the local economy are nearly $1.5 million at Lake Clark and $13.8 million at Katmai, home to peerless grizzly bear viewing and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a geologic wonder linked to the 1912 eruption of Novarupta volcano and a key reason Katmai was designated a national park.

Dan Oberlatz, a longtime Lake Clark tour operator based in Anchorage, says what visitors crave is the chance to view untouched wilderness—waves lapping at rocky lakeshores, red salmon drying in the summer sun, fresh wolfprints on a mountain trail. As Oberlatz knows, Lake Clark wilderness leaves deep impressions.

“The first time I saw a grizzly on the Kvichak River was one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life,” says Oberlatz, recalling a 1994 stint working at a Lake Clark lodge with a college friend from California. Taking advantage of some time off, the two went exploring and found themselves on a bluff, gazing out at mountain peaks, autumn-tinged aspen, and spawning salmon by the thousands.

“Suddenly, galloping right toward us, was a brown bear sow and two cubs. The breeze was blowing downstream, and they had no idea we were there,” Oberlatz says. The two men watched in awe as the sow approached within 40 feet before diving into a deep pool of water as the cubs caught up.

Oberlatz says that 99 percent of his clients are from the Lower 48, and they want to see Alaska, beyond rails and buses and cruise ships. Through guided tours to Lake Clark country—with its turquoise lakes, braided rivers, and tundra studded with heather and cotton grass—the real Alaska is easy to deliver. If industrial pollution degrades the Lake Clark area’s vast watershed, Oberlatz believes a domino effect could claim animals, plants, fish—and the businesses and people that depend on each. “There aren’t any examples around the world where a large open-pit mine and a vibrant tourism industry coexist,” he says. “It’s never been done.”

Because ore is found in low concentrations at Pebble, open-pit mining, with its millions of tons of waste rock corralled by giant earthen retaining walls, is a likely option. State regulators have vowed to hold Pebble to the highest standards. But experts like Carol Ann Woody, a former chief fisheries scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey and a past member of a federal group studying Pebble, says permitting standards don’t inspire confidence, in part because rules are unclear when it comes to defining and mapping groundwater.

Consider fugitive dust, a common by-product of open-pit mining. Because of sulfur deposits at Pebble, the mine would include a pit two miles wide and a retaining wall four miles long just to hold back tailings and acidic waste. And blasting and grinding the earth to extract ore are likely to generate dust higher in harmful concentrations of copper and zinc. Once it’s borne on the region’s 100-mph winds, mining dust scatters unpredictably, Woody says, endangering streams and underground water alike.

A collapsed fishery is no idle threat, as much of the West Coast fleet learned in May 2008 when the U.S. Commerce Department issued a disaster declaration after fewer than 60,000 fish returned to the Sacramento River to spawn; numbers typically run into the hundreds of thousands, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The sudden, unprecedented collapse caused regulators to restrict commercial ocean salmon fishing off Oregon while waters off the entire California coast were closed.

Meanwhile in Bristol Bay, where salmon returns remain healthy, fishermen were heartened in 2008 when Wal-Mart, the world’s largest seafood retailer, recognized sustainable fisheries as a cornerstone of local economies. Wal-Mart has agreed to feature wild Bristol Bay sockeye in its stores as part of a pilot project demonstrating commitment to renewable fisheries.

Something Immeasurable

As Alaska’s residents weigh the value of untapped precious metals against the proven worth of wild salmon, NPCA and park-area residents are starting to focus national attention on aspects of Lake Clark that can’t be measured in tons or ounces.

“This is one of the most scenic wilderness areas in the world, worth protecting for its own sake,” says Anne Coray, a lifelong Alaskan who, with her husband, Steve Kahn, has spent 12 years in a home on the deep-water north shore of Lake Clark, a 40-mile-long, 5-mile-wide lake. From her lupine-filled front yard, on family property within the preserve, Coray’s view takes in a bay at the foot of an officially unnamed peak known locally by its Dena'ina name—Tits'nadzeni, or “mountain that comes down to the water.”

In autumn, forests blaze gold at the family compound, where Coray was born in a log cabin that still stands and her two brothers keep cabins of their own. In winter, Coray takes to the frozen lake to haul ice blocks for homemade ice cream or cool drinks. Drinking water comes from a nearby mountain stream that doubles as a refrigerator in summer.

“Just knowing that relatively pristine places still exist is important,” Coray says. “It’s a way of confirming that we humans have the restraint and wisdom to keep a few places off limits to development.”

Dick Proenneke would probably agree. A handwritten note, hanging on his cabin wall below two well-worn snowshoes asks, “Is it proper that the wilderness and its creatures should suffer because we came?”

Rosanne Pagano is a writer and editor who teaches at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue.

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