Editor's Note: This story was originally published August 20, 2007.
This summer, a couple of young filmmakers from Colorado traveled inland from the southwest coast of Alaska to the headwaters of Bristol Bay to create a documentary about its enormous fishery and the people who rely on it. The filmmakers wanted to talk to residents about a new industry rising in the region: mining.
The hills north of Iliamna Lake straddle the headwaters of two rivers that feed the richest sockeye fishery in the world. They also hold billions of dollars worth of copper, gold and molybdenum.
With this documentary, and myriad other publicity projects brewing, the foes of the Pebble project -- a massive mineral deposit near Iliamna -- want to make Bristol Bay known to virtually every American, to generate as much national opposition to mining in the Bristol Bay region as there is to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"We're very aggressively working on building national attention," said Art Hackney, a founder of the Renewable Resources Coalition, an Anchorage-based group headed by businessmen funding Pebble opposition in Alaska. "We're going to make this a world priority."
Hackney epitomizes the odd assortment of special interests that have joined forces to fight Pebble. A political consultant, Hackney is a frequent development booster, much more at home defending the "bridges to nowhere," opening ANWR to oil drilling and promoting the Red Dog Mine than trying to save pristine salmon streams from mining.
Pebble "is a different animal" than those projects, he says, because it will interfere with an existing industry, fishing.
"If good science shows it can't be done, we want it put to bed," he said.
The filmmakers and Hackney's coalition are just a fragment of the diverse forces getting involved in the battle over Pebble, which include hunters, sportfishermen, commercial fishermen, lodge owners, Bristol Bay Native groups, outdoor retailers, environmentalists and some villages and tribal groups.
THE NEXT ANWR
The campaign to stop Pebble has mushroomed over several years in Alaska.
Outside, the fight is being led by sportfishing groups. In the past year, some of the country's biggest fly-fishing outfitters -- including Redington, Orvis and Patagonia -- lined up publicly against large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region.
Northern Dynasty Mines Ltd., the company exploring Pebble on state-owned land, says it won't even apply for permits for five or six years. The publicity machine against Pebble is "unprecedented" for a project this early in its development, company officials said.
But Pebble's critics aren't willing to wait.
"People see Pebble as the next ANWR," said Jason Brune, executive director of the Resource Development Council, a pro-development business group based in Anchorage, which hasn't officially taken a position on the project.
The developers should get a fair chance to prove they can build a mine without hurting the fisheries, Brune said.
The filmmakers who explored Bristol Bay this summer, Travis Rummel and Ben Knight, said most people in the Lower 48 have never heard of Bristol Bay or Pebble. They want to change that.
Pebble can capture national attention because Bristol Bay is legendary among U.S. hunters and fishermen, said Scott Hed, outreach director for the Sportsman's Alliance for Alaska, which has been working to woo other hook-and-bullet groups to the anti-Pebble campaign.
Patagonia put up $5,000 plus $2,700 in equipment for the film. Last year, the company and 36 sportfishing-oriented companies and trade groups signed a protest letter to political leaders, including Gov. Sarah Palin, which was published in 12 nationally distributed outdoor magazines. The letter said mining in Bristol Bay is too much of a risk to its fisheries.
Rummel's tiny Denver-based film company, Felt Soul Media, joined up with the Alaska chapter of Trout Unlimited to promote and raise money for an in-depth, low-budget film about the region. The filmmakers' routine is to put most of their money into high-quality equipment, then couch surf or camp out.
They promise the film will feature people for and against Pebble, although Rummel and Knight admit to their own strong reservations about building a world-class mine in the Bristol Bay region.
Mining officials interviewed during Felt Soul's project are pessimistic the film will be fair to them.
"They received funding from sworn opponents of the Pebble project. We fear that it isn't objective journalism," said Sean Magee, Northern Dynasty's vice president of public affairs.
Rummel and Knight, both 29 and both avid fly-fishermen, rave about their summer in the Bush.
Of Bristol Bay: "People seem to have their priorities straight out there. We're so lucky we got to experience this," said Knight, who took a sabbatical from his year-round job as photo editor at a small Colorado newspaper.
"We're catch-and-release fishermen," Knight added. "And the next thing we know, we're literally knee-deep in a skiff full of dead, beautiful fish and our waders are slathered in salmon blood, and we're just like, 'Wow.' "
Starting in June, the two and their project coordinator, Trout Unlimited's Lauren Oakes, camped at the Peter Pan salmon cannery in Dillingham and in villagers' houses. They spent days with fishermen -- in their boats and homes. They floated next to belugas feeding on salmon near Nushagak Point, and two months later, hundreds of miles upstream, they stared down in amazement at tens of thousands of spawning sockeye.
While they ended up with an enormous quantity of footage, some of their most tantalizing targets declined to go on camera, Rummel said. For example, Bob Gillam, the Anchorage financier who has been funding much of the anti-Pebble fight and is described on their blog as a "big, bold, cigar lovin' fella."
Gillam refused to be interviewed on film, but he did provide two bush planes and three of his lodge employees to help the filmmakers get to the Koktuli River, near the Pebble site, for a 53-mile raft trip. And he donated money to the project, Rummel said.
They did spend an afternoon with Bella Hammond, the widow of former Gov. Jay Hammond, at her Lake Clark homestead, though she turned the tables and interviewed them.
"She's like the coolest grandma ever," Knight said.
After roughly 60 days in the Bush, gathering more than 40 hours of digital video, the two now face months of editing.
Next year, they hope to release their film for national distribution on the film festival circuit -- and maybe television.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
FOR MORE on Knight and Rummel's film, visit