Despite vigorous opposition, federal officials plan to open roughly 1 million acres near some of Alaska's richest salmon streams to mineral exploration and oil and gas leasing.
Large blocks of land in Southwest Alaska would be opened to development -- for the first time in more than 35 years -- in the same two river drainages as Pebble, the giant copper and gold prospect.
One of the drainages is the Kvichak River, which has the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. The other is the Nushagak River, the state's second-largest king salmon producer.
Pebble is located many miles farther upstream on state land in the headwaters of those Bristol Bay rivers. It is not subject to Friday's decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The decision outraged environmentalists and Bristol Bay fishermen.
"This is a part of my life that can't go disregarded, and it seems like it is," Everett Thompson, a fisherman from Naknek, said Monday.
But BLM officials said merely opening the land to mineral entry doesn't mean a mining company will move a clod of earth or an oil company will drill a well near any Bristol Bay salmon streams.
That's because they know of no major mineral deposits or oil and gas reserves on the acreage, they say.
So why open it? BLM's opponents ask.
A sprawling coalition of commercial and sportfishermen, Native village leaders and environmentalists were already mobilized to fight Pebble, which would be the state's largest mine if it's built. On the side, they have united with Lower 48 retailers to lobby, advertise and write letters to persuade federal officials to keep the region off-limits to large-scale mining. The BLM rejected four protests of the plan before issuing its decision on Friday.
The coalition is scrambling to block the decision before or after U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne signs documents opening the land to development.
Tactics could include federal legislation, lawsuits or a plea to the incoming president, Barack Obama, to rescind the decision, coalition members said in a press conference Monday.
"We intend to fight this with every available tool that we can come up with," said Terry Hoefferle, executive director of Numamta Aulukestai, a group of eight village Native corporations in the Bristol Bay region.
BLM officials and private geologists don't see what the fuss is all about.
"There's just not many signs that there are mineral deposits on those lands," said Greg Beischer, an Anchorage geologist whom the BLM hired about two years ago to review what is known about the mineral potential of the million acres.
Beischer was familiar with the area. At the time, he worked for a subsidiary of Bristol Bay Native Corp., which owns millions of acres in the region.
"We did a rigorous analysis given the data that is available, which is relatively sparse," said Beischer, who now runs a mineral exploration company.
The scarcity of data is one reason that many in the Bristol Bay region are skeptical of the BLM's assurance that the land lacks valuable minerals.
Also, if the land has low mineral potential, why open it, said Tim Bristol, the Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited, a fishing advocacy group that opposes mining in the Bristol Bay region.
"It seems like the process was more about ideology than careful (planning)," Bristol said.
BLM officials disagree.
The agency isn't opening the area to any and all development, said Teresa McPherson, a BLM spokeswoman. For example, the officials restricted where development can occur -- it has to be 300 feet away from salmon streams, she said.
Environmentalists countered Monday that a 300-foot buffer zone wouldn't protect a salmon stream from a major chemical leak.
The million acres won't be open for claim-staking immediately.
Before Kempthorne can open it, the BLM must complete a host of bureaucratic tasks, and it's unclear whether they will be finished before the Bush administration leaves office in January, McPherson said.
The reason why the land was originally closed to development, and why it is being opened now, is rooted in Alaska's Native land claims movement.
For 36 years, millions of acres of federal land in Alaska have been closed to mining or oil and gas leasing because of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the federal law that created Alaska's Native corporations.
The acreage was put off-limits to development while the new corporations selected federal land across the state. Under the Alaska Statehood Act, which Congress passed in 1958, the state also selected federal land.
So far, the BLM has relinquished 39 million acres to the corporations and 97 million acres to the state. About 14 million acres still needs to be relinquished, McPherson said.
She said the Native corporations and the state already picked the federal land in the Bristol Bay region with the highest mineral potential.
The controversial Pebble deposit, for example, was selected by the state.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.