The battle over the giant Pebble gold and copper prospect is escalating across Alaska with a blitz of radio and television ads.
You've probably at least caught glimpses or heard a fragment or two, but you may be puzzled over what it's all about.
Why are mine backers highlighting long-closed mines near the Copper River, hundreds of miles from the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska?
Sometimes it's personal. Why are mine foes all riled up over someone they call "Pebble Lady?"
And why are both sides so intent on winning our hearts and minds?
Pebble's buried treasure is immense, an estimated 80 billion pounds of copper and more than 100 million ounces of gold, though the developers stress no decisions have been made on how much -- if any -- to extract. The claim area spans 150 square miles. Pebble could become North America's largest open pit mine.
Some welcome the project as a source of sorely needed jobs in the cash-poor Bristol Bay region. But the deposit also straddles the headwaters of streams that feed rich runs of red salmon, king salmon and rainbow trout.
So where supporters see the promise of jobs, revitalized communities and glittering gold, opponents see a risk of destroyed habitat and the ruin of commercial and sport fisheries pursued by Alaskans for generations.
Now the two sides find themselves locked in an arms-race-style media war that, five years in, shows no sign of letting up.
Generals in this war of words say they must grapple for public support -- or lose ground to the other side.
"Since the opposition is spending a fair amount of money we have to spend a lot -- a fair amount of money. It's not particularly productive," said Shively, chief executive officer of The Pebble Partnership. The partners are Northern Dynasty Minerals and mining giant Anglo American. Northern Dynasty, considered a junior mining company, is trying to sell its interest.
Pebble is just defending itself against "strong, negative and misleading ads that are thrown out there against this project," spokesman Mike Heatwole said.
Project opponents say the same thing -- they are only responding to Pebble's claims.
Art Hackney, a media consultant who is credited with leading the charge for the Pebble foes, said the Pebble backers are dominating TV time, with maybe five ads to every one that his side can afford.
"When you being massively outspent, sometimes you have to be reactive in a guerilla-like way," said Hackney, who has run media campaigns for U.S. Don Young and other prominent politicians.
Shively, a former state Department of Natural Resources commissioner, served 17 years with NANA Regional Corp. and helped the Native corporation negotiate the terms under which Red Dog mine was permitted.
He disputed Hackney's assessment on spending: "It's exactly the other way around." Last year, the opposition spent far more than Pebble on ads, he insisted. This year, the spending has evened out, Shively said.
Verifying who is spending how much is impossible. Neither side will reveal its advertising budget, and at this point they don't have to. Shively would say only that Pebble is not spending millions this year on ads.
The opposition ads are being sponsored by either Alaska Wild Salmon Protection Inc. -- Hackney is president -- or a separate group, Alaskans for Bristol Bay, that includes some of the same players, including former state Sen. George Jacko of Pedro Bay.
Eventually some information should be disclosed through campaigns related to proposed ballot measures. A fight is being waged now over the "Save Our Salmon" ballot initiative in the Lake and Peninsula Borough. The initiative, which would bar permits from being granted for big mines that would have a "significant adverse impact" on salmon streams, is being challenged by Pebble in court.
Both sides are trying to win over and hold onto public opinion for wherever the battle is fought: the ballot booth, the Legislature, even with regulators who will decide the dozens of major permits Pebble will need.
BACK AND FORTH
Pebble opponents have been trying since 2006 to convince Alaskans that the big mine is the wrong project for a salmon-rich area. Recently, they've been pointing to a poll that found most Alaska voters believe you can be both pro-development and anti-Pebble.
Pebble backers say salmon and mining can co-exist and urge people not to make up their minds until the project issues detailed development plan and applies for permits.
Each side accuses the other of deceiving the public.
"In terms of the ads themselves, our concern is how often they lie," Shively said in a telephone interview.
One example, he said, is an ad that contended Alaska had no mining standards and that Pebble could rip up 50 miles of salmon streams.
"That just couldn't be done!" Shively said. Regulators, he said, would never allow it.
The opposition isn't backing off. State law doesn't limit how many miles of salmon stream can be wiped out, Hackney said.
On the flip side, the opposition insists that Pebble keeps making claims about how it won't harm the land or water, only to be proven wrong. They point to one Pebble ad that contended exploration work was being done with nary a trace. Everything man-made was hauled away by helicopter and exploration holes were filled in, Shively told viewers in the ad.
"We went and documented some horrendous gunk and garbage and holes left with things left in them," Hackney said.
Pebble says the opposition misread state inspection reports. "Anyone who has seen our work comments on the efforts we are taking on reclamation," Heatwole said.
Hogwash, says the opposition. And on it goes.
At the start of the opposition campaign in 2006, the Pebble opposition targeted local residents resigned to the project, trying to convince them that the mine could be stopped, and the anti-Pebble groups would stand with them, Hackney said.
In 2008, the public relations fight heated up. A ballot measure sought to tighten water pollution discharge rules for large mines. The mining industry fought it hard. The campaign over the measure ranks as the most expensive political ad war in state history. Hackney puts the total at $20 million and says $17 million of that came from mining interests' successful effort to defeat the measure in the August 2008 primary. Heatwole says that figure is too high.
Things calmed down for a while after that.
The Pebble Partnership began running low-key TV ads that fall featuring Shively, who spoke in a friendly tone and stressed that a final decision about mining there was years away.
"Visit our website and learn the facts today," Shively urged.
By 2010, Pebble was focusing on economics with a series of ads featuring unnamed people talking about the loss of jobs in the region, the high cost of living, the young people moving away. Pebble was bringing jobs, and opportunity, they said.
The people were all locals, and none were paid, Heatwole said.
'OFFENSIVE TO SALMON'
Starting earlier this year, Pebble has been telling its story largely through a series of seven television ads featuring a young woman.
The Pebble Lady, say opponents.
Her name is Martina Arce, though that never is said in the ads. She's paid to be featured in the ads and says she has an open mind on Pebble -- the same thing some prominent officials in the region say.
In the first, she tells viewers she is going to hike from her hometown of Iliamna "at the heart of the Pebble deposit" to Bristol Bay to show just how far it is. The ad, in two parts, shows an outdoorsy-looking Arce, camping, looking through binoculars, moving from spot to spot. She says the journey spanned 120 miles and took a week.
"It kind of puts things into perspective, doesn't it?" she says in the second part.
She didn't really make the hike -- the ads were just to illustrate a point, Heatwole said. Arce said even though she didn't actually hike or camp, she doesn't think the ads were dishonest. They showed the big picture.
"It got everyone's attention," she said.
Within days, Pebble opponents shot back with an ad of their own.
"Hello!?" the announcer exclaims. The salmon spawn in the waters she is walking across, not in the bay itself, and many salmon streams would be dug up, the ad said.
"These ads are offensive to Alaskans, and to salmon," the announcer says. "Too many empty words. Too much risk."
The ads featuring Arce shifted to economic themes. In one, she begins by saying how important fishing is to the region, but she notes that the season just lasts a few weeks and says many of the drift fishery permits now are owned by non-Alaskans.
The anti-Pebble group pounced.
"Bristol Bay doesn't believe the Pebble Lady," the announcer says in ads that recently began to air. "Do you?"
Residents from the Bristol Bay region appear in the ads challenging the young woman and expressing their worries for salmon. As they speak, their names and villages flash across the screen. None were paid, Hackney said.
"This Pebble spokeswoman does not really know what fishing is about," says Tisha Lind of Port Heiden.
"This girl," said Shanda Jones of Chignik Lagoon , holding up Arce's picture, "does not speak for us."
In another ad, John Jones, also of Chignik Lagoon said "I think she gets paid well for her words, whoever's putting them in her mouth."
The most dramatic comment didn't mention the Pebble Lady.
"If this mine goes through, we die," said Natalie Lind of Chignik Lake.
Heatwole said Pebble's ads are rooted in science and facts.
"One thing that's common in a lot of the messaging back and forth is the other side is trying to convey a very fearful, emotive message that if Pebble goes, everything out in Bristol Bay is going to go away," he said.
ON THE RADIO
Another heated exchange has emerged recently in radio ads regarding the old Kennecott mines near the Copper River. The Copper supports a healthy run of red salmon highly prized by Northwest restaurants and fish markets.
Heatwole said Pebble heard from people suggesting they bring up Kennecott and thought it was a good idea.
But the opposition says Kennecott is nothing like what's proposed for Pebble. The Kennecott deposit had a high concentration of copper, with little waste. Water for processing was taken for a stream that didn't support salmon.
"The Pebble Mine would be built directly on top of salmon streams. It is less than one-half of 1 percent copper and would generate over 10 billion tons of acid-producing waste," the rebuttal ad claims.
ROMANCE OF MINING
For all the effort and money, the deluge of ads may not have much effect, say media experts.
"I don't seem them as game-changers," said Jean Craciun, chief executive officer of Craciun Research Group. Her agency, which does polling and leads focus groups, is examining how Alaskans feel about mining for industry giant Rio Tinto, which has a minority interest in the Pebble project. She wouldn't say whether she's polling on Pebble.
Some of the ad messages may assure those already firmly on one side or the other that they made the right choice, but aren't likely to move the vast middle, she said.
"The decidedly undecideds are sitting there scratching their heads, 'what are you people talking about?' " she said.
As for mining generally, Alaskans support it and see it as part of the future, Craciun said.
Mining still carries the allure of the frontier, of individuals who get rich their own way and are beholden to no one, said UAA history professor Steve Haycox, who has written extensively about Alaska's history and economy.
"Gold production peaked in Alaska in 1906, for heaven's sake," Haycox said. "But there's a romance about mining."
The idea that an individual can hit it big prospecting "happens not to be very true," he said.
"But nonetheless, there is a deep, deep Western romance, an individualist romance. And it plays very, very well in Alaska."
At the least, the ads have made people aware there's a big issue involving Bristol Bay mining and salmon, said Rick Nerland, chairman of Nerland Agency, which isn't involved in the Pebble ad wars.
And the ads featuring the young woman would have more credibility if she were named and if they included her story, Nerland said. He didn't even realize she was from the region.
"I don't think anyone believes 100 percent of either side," he said.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.