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Compass: Bristol Bay plan should put fish and wildlife first

As a 43-year resident of the Bristol Bay area, with extensive experience in the biological resources of the area, I am compelled to comment on the revised Bristol Bay Area Plan. I helped with the development of the original 1984 plan that was based on numerous public drafting meetings in Bristol Bay area villages and elsewhere in the state.

This record was submitted and accepted as our management plan until an arbitrary decision was made by DNR administrators, without Bristol Bay residents' involvement to scrap the plan in favor of something more favorable to the mining industry. The result of that decision is extremely objectionable to those of us who reside in the Bristol Bay area. My recommendation is to return to the original plan we devised and submitted in 1984. We specified fish and wildlife habitat to be the prime function of most of the state land units in the Bristol Bay area.

It's hard to envision fish and wildlife of any kind carrying out complete life cycles around open-pit mines, waste-rock dumps, detoxification settling-ponds, and the types of land uses associated with mines. It's also hard to envision how local residents could subsist within the "security zones" that would be imposed around such developments. These types of activities should be restricted to an absolute minimum in the Bristol Bay area known as the world's largest remaining producer of wild sockeye salmon and one of the most favored areas for recreational angling of large native salmonids that include world-class native rainbow trout and salmon species

There is ample evidence in the Bristol Bay area of the time necessary for watersheds to recover from major environmental disruptions. The eruptions of Aniakchak volcano on the Alaska Peninsula about 3,000 years ago, Mount Katmai/Novarupta volcano in Katmai National Park in 1912, and acid discharge from Chiginagak volcano in the King Salmon River drainage near Ugashik Bay in June 2005 have given us direct examples of the recovery/recolonization time-lines that even natural ground and water contamination can present.

For instance, several fish species have still not returned to the drainages around Aniakchak after 3,000 plus years. Ukak River in Katmai Park still lacks its salmon run and there is scant vegetation and very little wildlife in the Valley-of-10,000 Smokes 100 years after the eruptive event.

These are the kinds of natural events that local native peoples refer to when stressing how important subsistence is and has been to their way of survival in the Bristol Bay region. When these types of disruptions occurred in the past the people had to change their subsistence patterns or perish. In oral histories there is particular attention paid to surviving "the starvation times."

It was very important to those of us working on the original 1984 plan to emphasize protecting the fish and wildlife habitat in recognition of the fact that we may have to depend on it in response to another eruption or other natural event. We did not make that designation lightly.

Many of the local native elders whose knowledge was especially meaningful in those decisions have passed away and their insights are no longer available to those who have scrapped or would revise the carefully crafted 1984 plan. Those of us who survive them do not wish to see their wisdom discarded in favor of mineral interests or DNR's bureaucratic expediency.

Again, I am advocating a return to the publicly vetted 1984 Bristol Bay Area Plan over the administratively gutted pro-mineral development version. State lands in the Bristol Bay watershed should be managed for fish and wildlife habitat as the Number 1 priority and naturally pure waters as the Number 2 priority.

Ultimately, within just a few decades, our clean waters will be a far more valuable commodity to the world than all the extractable minerals from this area combined and we'll again have to figure out how to protect our fish and wildlife from those that would seek to sell off our waters for short-term profits.

Dick Russell is a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who was a member of the planning team for the original Bristol Bay Area Plan. He continues to live in Bristol Bay.