BLM management plan endangers Bristol Bay Native culture

Bobby Andrew

For generations, Alaska Natives have hunted, fished, thrived and survived on the land surrounding Bristol Bay. As I look forward to passing on this way of life to my children and grandchildren, I find myself fighting for the future of my culture.

The Bureau of Land Management has released a management plan for nearly 1.5 million acres of key watershed for Bristol Bay that recommends opening every acre to mineral development. This development could effectively wipe out the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, which not only feeds my people but also contributes $200 million annually to the state economy. In addition, the caribou and other wildlife that my culture was built on will no longer have the vast land they need to feed and survive.

Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of Our Land), an association of eight Bristol Bay Native Corporations, joined together for the first time and vowed to work to protect our land in the Bristol Bay watershed. In December 2007, when the BLM first opened the protest period on their final plan, we reached out to work cooperatively and create a balanced approach for the future of this land.

Since then, we have met with BLM staff and the Alaska congressional delegation several times to express our concerns about the inadequate protections included in BLM's proposed plan for Bristol Bay's clean water, fish and wildlife. Together with sport and commercial fishing interests and others, we have submitted thousands of letters outlining these concerns.

Specifically we asked for a multimillion acre fish and wildlife resource area in the Bristol Bay watershed, and requested a halt to the proposed Pebble mine on state land and the growing Bristol Bay Mining District. Northern Dynasty Mines has said that Pebble mine could become one of the largest metallic sulfide, copper-gold mines in the world, using both open pit and large-scale underground mining. This mine could then become a small part of a massive mining district stretching across the entire Bristol Bay watershed.

Despite our efforts, BLM has consistently ignored our concerns. Our voices have echoed back to us unanswered. The BLM also chose to ignore the fishing industry that contributes so much to Alaska's economy.

In the 2008 fishing season, preliminary calculations indicate that the ex-vessel value of all salmon species in Bristol Bay was $113.3 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The harvest and processing of Bristol Bay fish generates nearly $320 million a year and provides jobs for some 12,500 people. Sportfishing is also a major part of the local economy -- an estimated $60 million is spent annually on Bristol Bay fishing trips.

Currently, the Bristol Bay watershed is teeming with life -- crystal clear expanses of water and vast wide open tundra etched with rivers and lakes, pools and puddles. There is little trace of human presence. Mineral development will bring roads, infrastructure and access routes to these remote areas, in addition to toxic dust, acidified water, dead fish and deep scars on our land.

Those of us who depend on this land and water are banding together to demand that our elected officials step in and protect our way of life.

The fish and wildlife are the real gold mine in this region. Our renewable resources support families and communities --- and they must be protected. We will not allow a mining district to poison our fish and game and destroy our way of life.

For 9,000 years, we have been a part of this land. I will pass on my subsistence lifestyle to my children and grandchildren, and I will not let BLM take away my cultural legacy.

Bobby Andrew is spokesman for Nunamta Alukestai, Caretakers of Our Lands in Dillingham.