JUNEAU -- The state's natural resources department will have to justify its rationale for how it re- designated land use in the Bristol Bay region nearly a decade ago, a process that could have ramifications for the proposed Pebble prospect.
An agreement in a 2009 case brought by tribes, Trout Unlimited and fishermen calls on the department to make revisions to its 2005 land use plan. Plaintiffs' attorney Geoffrey Parker said Wednesday that the plan -- drafted as interest in the massive gold and copper prospect near the headwaters of one of the world's premier salmon fisheries was heating up -- eliminated more than 90 percent of prior inland habitat classifications in the region, with a tilt toward mining.
The plan was an update to a 1984 land use plan, which Parker said mainly classified lands in the region for multiple uses, meaning all uses had to be given consideration. The 2005 plan, he said, moved more toward single classifications.
It primarily used marine criteria, things like walrus and sea lion haul-outs or herring spawning areas, to determine if inland upland areas qualified as fish and wildlife habitat, he said, but did not include consideration for caribou and moose wintering and calving areas. It also expressly excluded sport hunting and fishing from the definition of recreation for recreational lands.
Parker said the decisions "border on scandalous."
"I use the words 'border on scandalous' because this is clearly to benefit Pebble," he said.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, the group behind the Pebble prospect, didn't form until 2007, but Parker said there was already interest in the mineral deposit at the time the plan was written.
Marty Parsons, deputy director of the department's Division of Mining, Land and Water, said he was not in his current position when the plan was written. But he said that, from the work he's seen, people involved were careful to work with the resources in the region and to accurately identify them, without a bias one way or the other in regards to development.
The agreement, recently signed off on by a judge, calls on the state to make a number of revisions and reclassifications, including adding caribou and moose considerations to the list of criteria used to identify sensitive habitats and revising the definition of recreation to include sport hunting and fishing. The department also is to reclassify as wildlife habitat the spawning and rearing areas of navigable anadromous waters.
Once the plan is reopened, "everything is up for grabs again," Parker said, including debate over the classification of lands involving the Pebble prospect.
The agreement "should, and may well, affect Pebble, but I think we'll be arguing how much it will affect Pebble," he said.
Parsons said any other potential reclassification of lands won't be known until the department completes its process. It is to issue a draft of its revisions and take public comment. The department has until next September to issue a final decision.
"Please make sure people know this is an open, public process," he said.
The lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice, meaning the fight over land in the region and the state's process could continue.
A Pebble Partnership spokesman has said the group is on track to release a mine plan this year or early next year, as well as advance during that timeline to the permitting phase. The court agreement does not affect the group's ongoing work.
The Pebble Partnership has called the deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum over decades.