Easement will protect the Chuitna River

Donita Hensley

For more than 40,000 years the Dene people have cultivated and been nurtured by the land and waters around Tyonek, a village 40 miles west of Anchorage on Upper Cook Inlet. At the very heart of this land is the Chuitna River, its source for abundant wildlife, diverse vegetation and natural beauty.

Today the Chuitna is endangered. And we, the Tebughna ("the beach people"), are acting to protect it. We are asking Congress to approve a bill that creates the Chuitna Conservation Easement. Through a cooperative stewardship among the Tyonek Native Corporation, the Native Village of Tyonek, the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District and The Nature Conservancy this easement will protect 2,700 acres of the Chuitna watershed, an eight-mile stretch that runs through Tyonek-owned property, so that this vital river may prosper in perpetuity.

The easement will defend the Chuitna River and its five species of salmon from the exploitation that has led to the demise of so many other rivers in Upper Cook Inlet. If the Chuitna River isn't protected now, its ability to sustain abundant life will end abruptly, as it has with other great Alaska rivers.

The once-proud Alexander Creek king salmon runs were traditionally 10 times larger than the Chuitna's runs, but now cannot meet state escapement goals. The king salmon have all but disappeared from the Theodore, Lewis and Ivan tributaries and the sudden decline of the Deshka River kings has already resulted in severe fishing restrictions. As other nearby rivers fail, the pressure to fish the Chuitna increases, to the point that it too will fall prey to over-harvesting.

The Chuitna Conservation Easement will only place new restrictions on one part of the river--where the people of Tyonek live. It permanently prevents commercial development on the eight-mile stretch of the Chuitna River that runs through Tyonek property. This will allow the Tebughna people the opportunity to apply traditional and modern technology, knowledge and sophistication needed in returning the river to long-term prosperity for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

As stewards of this land, the Tebughna people also recognize what others don't fully understand: The fate of the Cook Inlet beluga whale is intimately intertwined with the health of Cook Inlet's king salmon, which provides critical nutrients necessary for the survival of nursing beluga whales and their calves. Our elders tell us, "Feed them and they will grow, starve them and they will die." Unfortunately the Cook Inlet beluga whale calves are starving at the same time the rivers are being fished out.

In 2007 the Chuitna River was listed as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States based on the impact of several potential resource development projects that will bring hundreds of new workers to the area. By collaborating with these developers and building a sound conservation plan, the Chuitna Conservation Easement will protect the Chuitna watershed while still allowing needed economic development to prosper in the area.

The Chuitna Conservation Easement will promote the health of salmon stocks, provide kings for the important recovery of Cook Inlet's beluga whales and maintain the river in its wild state for generations. We anticipate there will be those who will continue to put their own desires and interests above the survival of the river and demand the right to access and over-fish the Chuitna River. The survival of the beluga whale and the king salmon depend on our society's willingness to place the needs of the river above the interests of individuals. Can there be one river in Alaska in which the survival of Alaska's wildlife is put before the desires of the few? If so, let it be the Chuitna River.

Yeti hnu bugh yagheli est tsedi: Whatever you do in life I hope you succeed in good health, a Dena'ina blessing.

Donita Hensley is president of Tyonek Native Corporation. Readers may learn more at chuitnaconservation.com.