Compass: Pebble may serve to sustain Southwest Alaska, along with fishing

It has been more than five years since I agreed to take on the role of leading the Pebble Partnership as its chief executive officer. Much has been said and written about my intentions in this position. While some of it may be construed as accurate, some of what I have said is taken out of context to suit the views of various groups and individuals opposing the development of a mine at Pebble.

Robin Samuelson wrote recently about the economics of Bristol Bay's commercial fishing industry and wrote a few things about me that warrant clarity. We need the fishery in Bristol Bay for subsistence, sport and commercial users. No one disputes this assertion, including me. It is why we have a core commitment to co-exist with the salmon resource in this part of Alaska.

What bothers me most is the incomplete picture that many have painted when talking about the economics of the area. I recognize that some Alaskans and some local residents participate in the commercial fishery. However, if the commercial fishing industry is the foundation of a vibrant economy for "a place that's always been," I have the following questions for those who say, "No Pebble, No way":

Why did two villages located on Bristol Bay have their schools close last year because they did not have the 10 students required by state law, and why are there a number of other villages in the region facing the same fate?

Why is the population of the region in decline -- 10 percent in the Lake and Peninsula Borough, 25 percent in Nondalton and 44 percent in Levelock alone according to the 2010 U.S. Census?

Why are some commercial fishers supporting the idea of having the state of Alaska buy back permits in the fishery?

Why did a survey conducted by the leading social and business organizations in the region show that people identified alcohol, drug abuse and domestic violence more often than any other problem that they are concerned about?

Some of the answers can be found in the following bits of information. A review of the report "Changes in the Distribution of Alaska's Commercial Fisheries Entry Permits, 1975-2010" by the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission indicates that only about 20 percent of the permits are fished by local residents in Bristol Bay.

Further, the state of Alaska Department of Labor's "2011 Residency of Alaska Workers" report shows that seafood processing jobs have a nonresident hire rate of 76.6 percent and that number gets even higher in Southwest Alaska. Although there are thousands of processing jobs in Bristol Bay, most of these jobs last only six to eight weeks.

So for the many people who have already left their village to seek better opportunities elsewhere, the commercial fishing industry does not seem to be meeting their needs. For the villages that have lost their schools, the future is bleak, and, as one local leader said to me, "There is no sadder sight than an abandoned village."

Can Pebble be the solution for some of these economic and social woes? We know we can create good, well-paying, year-round jobs. We know that the modern mines operating in Alaska co-exist with fish today. We know we will have to meet very high environmental standards to achieve our commitment to co-exist with the fish.

Any judgment as to whether we can attain these goals should be based on our mine plan -- a plan I hope to release later this year. Then we can fully debate the range of issues associated with developing this world-class mineral asset belonging to the people of Alaska, the jobs and economic activity it could generate, and how it will co-exist with the important fishery resource in Bristol Bay.

Accepting the status quo in Southwest Alaska will result in continuing population declines for many villages and a continuation of the social ills many people face when they have little, if any, economic hope. I prefer to develop economic opportunities to reverse this trend. It's why I took this job in the first place.

John Shively is the CEO of the Pebble Partnership. Shively came to Alaska as a VISTA volunteer, worked with NANA Regional Corporation and has served two governors.