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State revisits local impacts of Bristol Bay management plan

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman

Forced to review a land management plan by Pebble Mine opponents, the state is traveling around Bristol Bay communities to hear local concerns, according to Department of Natural Resources official Marty Parsons.

Public meetings have already been held in Iliamna, Igiugig, King Salmon/Naknek, and Port Heiden. Additional meetings will happen soon in Dillingham, Nondalton, New Stuyahok, and Koliganek, Parsons said.

The controversial Bristol Bay Area Plan is the subject of the meetings. Revisions to the plan in 2005 were seen as favoring mining over fish, leading to a lawsuit by Trout Unlimited, Alaska Independent Fisherman's Marketing Association, and six tribal groups.

"DNR ignores past priorities that put fish first," according to a newspaper advertisement by the plaintiffs in last week's Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman. They said the 2005 plan reversed policies dating back to 1967.

Parsons said the lawsuit was filed in state Superior Court in Dillingham, and went on to the state Supreme Court. A determination was made that the matter would be handled administratively. The public comment period is open until May 6, and Parsons said DNR hopes to provide a response by Sept. 12.

Parsons described the 2005 plan as a routine overhaul of state land management plans, which are reviewed and changed as new information becomes available.

"They have about a 20-year shelf life, before we need to go back and look at them again," Parsons said.

Mine opponents complained of a wholesale redesignation in 2005.

"All this eliminates 93 percent of prior habitat classifications under the 1984 Bristol Bay Area Plan, including at Pebble. The 2005 BBAP defines recreation as excluding sport hunting and fishing. This eliminates 86 percent of prior recreational classifications, including at Pebble," according to the ad from BalanceForBristolBay.org

In an email, Parsons said the plan does not allow DNR to revoke a mining permit.

"A designation of wildlife habitat in an area plan does not prevent or block the review or permitting of development projects in the planning area, large or small.

"The Bristol Bay Area Plan simply identifies the processing of a permitting application. An area plan cannot extinguish a previously acquired right such as a mining claim. Such actions are beyond the authority of the area plan or Department," Parsons said.

Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association president David Harsila said Monday that he's glad DNR is listening to the concerns of salmon fishermen.

"It's taking its due process," he said.

Mine opponents have their own plan that they'd like to see adopted, calling it the Alternative Draft Bristol Bay Area Plan.

"It restores most habitat classifications in the Kvichak and Nushagak drainages, prohibits metallic sulfide mines like Pebble Mine in those drainages, manages land to protect habitat, commercial, subsistence and sport uses of fish and game, and fosters cooperative land use planning," proponents say.

The proposed Pebble copper and gold mine is located north of Lake Iliamna, and could bring massive change to an undeveloped area. The excavation of an enormous mine would also require the construction of a road to new Pacific Ocean port in Cook Inlet, where large bulk carrier ships would transport the ore to distant smelters.

Mine supporters see the creation of new jobs and local revenues, while opponents see severe harm to sport and subsistence and commercial fisheries. They fear that toxic runoff from mining waste could interfere with the ability of salmon to navigate back to their home streams that support a bountiful sockeye salmon resource.

This story originally appeared in the Bristol Bay Times and is republished here with permission. Jim Paulin can be reached at paulinjim(at)yahoo.com