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Pebble Mine fears shadow Alaska land plan for Bristol Bay area

Carey Restino | Bristol Bay Times
A work camp for the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska. After a long and contentious public process to come up with a management plan for the Bristol Bay area, some residents fear the state is trying to make it easier to permit mining and disregard other uses, like subsistence hunting and fishing. EPA photo

Ever since the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) updated its Bristol Bay Area Plan for land use management in 2005, there has been debate about what should and should not be considered the best use of the land. And as the proposed Pebble Mine became clearer in scope, some Bristol Bay residents became more and more concerned about what the plan's revisions were designed to accomplish.

In 2009, several tribes and entities in the region filed suit against the 2005 plan, which covers some 12.6 million acres of above-ground and 6 million acres of submerged and tideland in the region. An agreement reached with the plaintiffs called for DNR to address errors found in the plan and consider other issues raised by the plaintiffs.

Fast-forward to January: DNR completed this process, releasing the revised plan to the communities in the region for public comment. The response, by-and-large, was negative. One group of citizens came up with its own plan, which contains lots of co-designated lands, habitat designations, and far fewer lands designated for mineral development.

When the state concluded its public comment period, it held a series of meetings in Bristol Bay communities to discuss the plan. Instead, some residents, riled by a now-contentious fight against plans to develop a large-scale gold, copper and molybdenum mine in the Bristol Bay watershed, turned out to protest what many saw as an attempt by the state to make it easier to permit mining and disregard other uses, like subsistence hunting and fishing upon which many depend.

Critical of meetings

"It is hard for us to believe that DNR would conduct these meetings in such a mediocre way. The whole reason they are out here is because they got sued over just this kind of conduct," said Alannah Hurley, a Dillingham resident and tribal member who attended DNR's meetings.

Residents protested the fact that meeting notices were issued with only a few day's notice and were not properly advertised. In addition, they said, there were no copies of the 2005 plan available for review. Public comments weren't recorded, and participants said they felt the presentation given by DNR was misleading and didn't address the concerns of participants. Native elders were not provided language translation.

"DNR has acted as if the people of Bristol Bay and other users of our abundant renewable resources do not exist. They ignored us, and now they have attempted to pacify us," said Dorothy B. Larson, Tribal Administrator for the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham. "DNR has disregarded our attempts to work with the state to ensure they incorporate the results of our extensive scoping projects into our own management plan that include: the protection of subsistence, salmon, other fish & wildlife, our water, and the protection of habitat. These public meetings only heightened our frustration and confirmed DNR is not listening to the people of Bristol Bay."

John Moller, rural affairs advisor to Gov. Sean Parnell, attended the Bristol Bay meetings and said he tried to reassure residents that their comments would be brought to the attention of the governor.

However, the idea that DNR's land-use classifications might deter the development of Pebble Mine, or even stop future mining claims in the region, is somewhat misguided, said Bruce Phelps, DNR section chief. The Pebble mine claim is already filed, for one. It is now in the hands of the permitting process to approve or disapprove. Secondly, even it if wasn't, the land-management plan deals mainly with state plans that affect the surface, not subsurface, rights. And lastly, the tool the DNR had for limiting mining in certain areas - a mineral closing order -- is largely unusable since the authority was taken away from DNR to issue a mineral closing order on anything larger than 640 acres. That authority now rests with the legislature, said Phelps.

"It gets really to be a political issue now," Phelps said.

All that said, however, the plan's land use designations do impact how strictly a project is scrutinized when it comes up for review, Phelps said. And while a designation doesn't absolutely define a land's use -- Phelps said that virtually all the mines in the state of Alaska are on lands that were at least co-classified as habitat -- a designation can make the permitting process for certain projects more intensive.

Subsistence a protected use

One of the ideas being considered is implementing more co-designations for areas residents identify as important habitat areas that are currently listed for mineral development or other uses. Co-designations are prevalent in other area plans in the state, Phelps said, and were used extensively in the 1984 plan, but less so in the more recent plan.

Some of the ideas suggested by area residents were rejected, however, including a request by many that some of the land be classified as subsistence use land. Phelps said subsistence use is not a classification in land use plans because it is already a protected use.

"We can't do anything more in the plan than is already in place," he said.

But even if land was classified subsistence, it wouldn't preclude it from development, a misconception that some who testified had, Phelps said.

In addition, while local opinion is considered, it is not always the final word, he said. Most often, when the state looks at land classification, people who are not necessarily anti-development oppose development in their own back yard.

State interests vs. local interests

"All resources have to be managed based on the best interest of the state," Phelps said. "Sometimes the state interests may be different from the local interests."

Tom Tilden, Curyung Tribal Council chief, said he is frustrated by the process the state has used on this go-around of land classification. Back in the 1980s, the state had a citizens advisory council that helped guide DNR. This time? Nothing.

"They didn't include is in the beginning," he said. "This time there was no committee."

Tilden said area residents are worried about what happens to rivers and streams in the areas that are in lands classified for mineral development. He said he's hopeful that DNR will listen to local residents and come back with a revised plan that more closely reflects lands they have classified as critical to the habitat of the animals they depend on for subsistence hunting and fishing, but he said he has his doubts.

Phelps said all the issues raised in the comments of local residents will be addressed by the response summary, but there may not be time to bring the plan and any revisions it may have because of the public input back to the communities before it is published. Phelps said he's not sure its necessary if DNR is able to work with local representatives on some of the larger issues in coming months.

Moller said he will recommend to the governor that an extension of the timeline might be in order, if it is possible considering the court-mandated date for completion of revisions, to allow more time for public comment.

Phelps said one area of interest is the overall management intent statement for the area. He said it is his opinion -- not the opinion of DNR -- that the management intent for the Bristol Bay region is to manage the area for the fisheries.

"I think most people in Bristol Bay would probably agree that the protection of the fisheries is a very important management intent for DNR," he said. "That is not the opinion of DNR at this point."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times. Contact Carey Restino at crestino(at)reportalaska.com