Bristol Bay plan aids mining, not habitat

Joe Faith

The Alaska Board of Fisheries recently requested that the state Legislature conduct a comprehensive evaluation of permitting standards related to Pebble mine, and that it enact any additional safeguards considered prudent to provide strict protections to fish and game habitat of the drainages to prevent any chance of environmental damage. The laws are not adequate.

The 2005 Bristol Bay Area Plan (BBAP) is the 20-year road map of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for permitting in the Bristol Bay drainages. I respect all law-making power of the state. It astounds me, though, that, whenever the executive or legislative branch is dissatisfied with a law, it may authorize an official in an agency to make an arbitrary rule of conduct to substitute for law. In the case of the 2005 BBAP, DNR created arbitrary rules that defy common sense. A return now to the common-sense judgment of laymen is essential to the permitting process, including the 2005 plan.

DNR's plan lacks common sense. To identify habitat, the plan uses "fish and wildlife categories" that fail to include moose and caribou, except arguably in a few river corridors. An ordinary citizen knows that moose and caribou, which are vital to residents, are "wildlife" and not confined to corridors.

The plan declares that "recreation" does not refer to sport hunting and fishing. The public knows that sport hunting and fishing is considered recreation by countless people.

The plan defines "anadromous waters" by omitting the beds of lakes and streams where salmon grow, feed and migrate, and including only the beds where salmon spawn. The public knows that salmon swim to their spawning grounds, and that their young later must have clean water in which to live, feed, and grow before the smolt swim back to sea to continue the cycle again.

Mining company executives, who became DNR officials under Gov. Frank Murkowski, created the plan. They largely forgot the word "multiple" in multiple use. The plan serves one purpose: mining.

The 2005 plan reclassifies land (1) using primarily marine criteria, such as walrus haulouts or eel grass beds, to determine fish and wildlife habitat 100 miles from the coast, (2) excluding moose and caribou from habitat designation, (3) having no land classification for subsistence hunting and fishing, while having one for sport hunting and fishing, and then (4) defining recreation as excluding sport hunting and fishing. In effect, Pebble mine land, 100 miles from the coast, lost its protections for moose, caribou and salmon because it has no walrus!

But the effects of the plan reach far beyond Pebble. By using marine criteria for upland habitat, DNR reduced upland habitat classifications by 94 percent, from nearly 12 million acres in the prior 1984 Bristol Bay Area Plan to 768,000 acres in the 2005 plan. It renders mining as having priority over other vital uses on 9.4 million acres.

DNR's plan uses these and other devices to benefit mining at the expense of habitat, and commercial, subsistence and sport fishing and hunting. The Bristol Bay drainages produce the world's largest commercial salmon fishery, abundant other fish and wildlife, vital subsistence, and world-famous sport fishing and hunting. Dramatically reducing interior upland as habitat because no walrus are inland is absurd. Eliminating sport hunting and fishing as recreation is ludicrous. Denying subsistence a land-classification category, while sport hunting and fishing have one, is divisive. Many who testified to the Board of Fisheries supported a refuge in the Nushagak and Kvichak river drainages, to be managed by the Department of Fish and Game, and expressly to protect habitat and the uses of fish and game.

DNR's 2005 Bristol Bay Area Plan does not adequately protect Bristol Bay drainages from mining activity. Tribal, commercial and recreational parties have sued DNR over the plan.

The Legislature should return common sense to the permitting process to protect fish, wildlife, and commercial, subsistence and sport uses of them, including the largest red salmon run in the world.

Joe Faith is a commercial and subsistence fishermen and lawyer. He lives in Dillingham.