Middle Creek's salmon better bet than coal

Jim Rearden

Some folks from Texas are planning to strip-mine 12 million tons of coal a year for 25 years at the Chuitna River on the west side of Cook Inlet. Because it flows above the coal, they want to destroy 11 miles of Middle Creek, a beautiful stream that is home to all five species of Alaska's salmon. To reach the coal, each year they would dig the equivalent of a ditch 100 yards wide, 100 feet deep, and nearly 11 miles long. This, over the 25 years of the project, would be the equivalent of a ditch of that size stretching from Homer to Anchorage.

Alaska's Department of Natural Resources has accepted a permit application for this monstrous misuse of the land. That an Alaska agency would consider such a proposal is an insult to Alaskans and to the land. In my 61 years of being involved with Alaska's renewable resources, the only other comparable, seriously proposed rape of Alaska's land I can remember was when Gov. Gruening wanted to dam the Yukon River.

The federal government almost destroyed Alaska's salmon fishery. Now, Alaska's salmon management is the envy of fishery managers around the world. Since statehood in 1959, Alaska's Department of Fish and Game has rebuilt our salmon runs to equal to or even better than the greatest runs of the earliest years.

The future of our salmon depends upon the health of our salmon streams. Since territorial days we have prohibited dams that could keep salmon from spawning grounds. We have blown up beaver dams to allow salmon to reach their natal homes. To protect spawning grounds and prevent silting, one cannot legally drive a tractor or all-terrain vehicle across an Alaska salmon stream. We say no to stream pollution of any kind.

At statehood, Alaska's salmon managers -- I was one -- had mostly pristine rivers to manage. The Texans presume they can replace the 11 miles of Middle Creek they plan to destroy. That is impossible, unless they expect to spend centuries at it. How long have salmon evolved in River 2003 -- the coal miners' name for Middle Creek? Not only salmon, but the creatures they depend upon for food during their time in fresh water. Add aquatic plants and the beaver, muskrat, and mink. All life forms along that stream have for eons adapted to one another, and to the circumstances under which they all exist.

Only God could reproduce a viable 11 miles of an Alaska salmon stream and all its fixings, and it might even take Him a few centuries. It is impossible to set a dollar value on the loss of salmon from Middle Creek. The reason is simple: We don't know how long we will be here. Salmon is an eternally renewable resource. What would be the value of salmon from Middle Creek over the next 10,000 years? Compare that with 25 years of income from coal shipped to China, most of which would fill the pockets of Outside investors. Perhaps the most important question -- after 25 years of pit mining in the Chuitna basin, what would the Chuitna itself look like?

Based simply on the value of Middle Creek as a salmon producer, we should turn the Texans down. They plan to sell the coal to China. There's an irony here -- smoke from coal dug under clean Alaska skies would add to the smoky air above China, the most polluted air in the world. Is that what Alaskans want to contribute to the world? Do we as a state and member of the world's family have a responsibility to help avoid more air pollution?

There are many food-starved nations in our world today. What about tomorrow? What will the world look like in 5,000 years or 10,000 years? Can we maintain our salmon runs that long? The answer is yes, if we protect their habitat. Should we destroy one resource to plunder another?

One wonders what choice Alaskans would make, say, 5,000 years from now. Would it be salmon or coal? I'm betting on salmon.

In 1950, Jim Rearden organized the wildlife department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and taught as head of that department for four years. He has been an area biologist for commercial fisheries for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Cook Inlet, served on the old Board of Fish and Game and later on the Board of Game and was a member of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. He was outdoors editor of Alaska magazine for 20 years and has written more than 500 magazine stories and 27 books on Alaska subjects.