Compass: Tribal leaders fight DNR to preserve a way of life

As our leaders gather at the 22nd annual Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Provider's Conference this week in Anchorage, I know they are tackling some of Alaska's toughest issues with our communities' best interest at heart. The theme of the conference is "Collaborating to Strengthen Alaska's Tribal Nations," which is exactly what has been going on in Bristol Bay, where I am from. I'm so thankful for our tribal leaders from Bristol Bay who work so hard to represent our values and help move our people forward every day, especially when it comes to protecting our lands and waters.

We in Bristol Bay are fortunate that not only do the vast majority of our tribal governments fight to protect our subsistence way of life from incompatible development like Pebble Mine, but our village corporations and regional Bristol Bay Native Corporation also share this vision. They all recognize the survival of our culture depends on a clean and healthy environment. Our tribes are fortunate enough to share support from many other allies like commercial fishermen and sportsmen as well. We all agree, healthy Bristol Bay salmon runs are the cornerstone of our regional economy and our culture.

Given the strength of Bristol Bay's tribal leadership, it was no surprise when six of our tribes, along with commercial fishing and sportsmen's organizations, filed a legal challenge to the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resource's 2005 Bristol Bay Area Management Plan. The 2005 plan provides no protection for our subsistence resources, and reduced habitat safeguards in the 12 million acre planning area by an incredible 94 percent.

In fact, lands previously set aside for fish, wildlife and the protection of Bristol Bay's renewable resources became "prohibited uses" whenever they conflict with mining. This is a complete gutting of the original 1984 management plan, which balanced development and habitat conservation. DNR has become so comfortable with making decisions behind our backs they went as far to say in the 2005 plan that mineral development "is expected to be authorized."

It's quite clear DNR intends for Bristol Bay to be turned into a mining district and yet expects the world to believe otherwise. "Wait and see" is all we hear out of state officials when we express our concerns, but we in Bristol Bay know better. We have been waiting a long time for someone to take our concerns seriously and we have seen plans submitted by Pebble partner Northern Dynasty to DNR and the Securities and Exchange Commission for what could be the world's largest copper and gold mine, giant tailings lakes and dams and dewatered streams.

All of this would sit at the headwaters of our planet's greatest remaining sockeye salmon fishery and the centerpiece of our culture and sustainable regional economy.

DNR has eviscerated the management plan for our area; they have printed statements predicting the eventual permitting of Pebble and have stated publicly that saying no to Pebble is not an option they take seriously. Despite this, I believe tribal leaders and others will be active and engaged in a new round of public comment spurred by the lawsuit against DNR.

But our leaders and others are not willing to invest only in a process that has so utterly failed tribes and our local communities' in the past. That is why our wise leaders have petitioned EPA to use their authority under the Clean Water Act's section 404(c) to protect our fishery, our water and our people.

So quyana (thank you) to our tribal leaders meeting in Anchorage this week. Quyana for holding the state accountable for decisions that will have huge impacts on our lives and culture, and for reaching out to the EPA in order to protect what is most important to us -- our land and our water.

Alannah Hurley is a lifelong Bristol Bay resident, a commercial/subsistence fisherman and an indigenous rights activist.