Compass: Some lawmakers show more regard for Northern Dynasty than for Bristol Bay's people

In a recent ill-informed letter to Pebble mine proponent Northern Dynasty Minerals, a handful of members of the Alaska State Legislature, led by Senate Resources Chair Cathy Giessel, seemed to be out to prove how loyal they are to foreign mining interests and how little they care about Alaskans fighting for their way of life.

Giessel and letter co-signer Rep. Eric Fiege have also authored recent opinion pieces in Alaska newspapers where they morphed from cheerleaders for Pebble into attack dogs against the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act and the needs of Bristol Bay residents.

Feige stated he wanted to have an "honest discussion" about mining in Bristol Bay. I couldn't agree more.

First, let's get the history right. Rep. Feige claims that the EPA, at the insistence of "Outside" environmental groups, came to Bristol Bay with a political axe to grind. The truth is the EPA came at the invitation of the people who call Bristol Bay home. In 2010, after being repeatedly ignored by the Parnell administration, six Bristol Bay tribes directly petitioned the EPA to protect Bristol Bay's world-class wild salmon fishery. Our concern was the growing number of proposals for large-scale metallic sulfide mines in our backyard, including: the Big Chunk project proposed by Liberty Star Uranium & Metals, the Humble and AUDN deposits claimed by Millrock Resources, Inc., and, of course, Pebble.

In response to our petition, EPA began the exhaustive and unprecedented public and scientific process of examining the Bristol Bay watershed and the impacts of mines like Pebble on Bristol Bay's salmon, and the people who depend on that resource.

Rep. Feige believes it is "imperative that any elected officials who want to weigh in on this matter" should visit the region first. I agree. Our communities have hosted two EPA administrators who took the time to travel to the region. Last August, Administrator Gina McCarthy personally visited our communities to listen to local peoples' views on mineral development. How many Bristol Bay residents did Rep. Feige speak with during his flyover of the Pebble property?

Next, let's have a "discussion that considers the role of pride in preserving Native cultures" in Bristol Bay. Polling conducted by Bristol Bay Native Corporation of its shareholders shows 80 percent opposition to the Pebble project. During EPA's most recent public commenting period, over 95 percent of in-region commenters supported taking action to protect Bristol Bay. Had Rep. Feige landed his plane and met with local people, or if Sen. Giessel has made it out to Bristol Bay for the hearings, they would know that the overwhelming majority of Bristol Bay's residents are vehemently opposed to mines like Pebble in our watershed. More than anything else, we want our Native culture preserved. That culture is intrinsically linked to salmon. That's why our region opposes these development projects -- we're fisherman, not miners.

Finally, Rep. Feige's theory that "economic decline" leads the "most capable" of our people to leave is a perfect example of how disconnected folks in Juneau are from Bristol Bay. Our region already has a natural-resource based economy. It's the harvest of wild salmon. And it's stronger than ever. That, in turn, guarantees that our local commercial, subsistence and sport harvesters will continue making a living year after year.

The problem is not "economic decline;" it's that our economy isn't one very popular with lawmakers, like Rep. Feige, who would rather see Bristol Bay's future defined by mega mines than fishing nets. Salmon are the ultimate renewable resource, so long as their spawning and rearing habitat is preserved.

It's good to see some elected officials, like Sen. Mark Begich and state Rep. Andy Josephson, stand up for Bristol Bay. As recent letters to foreign miners and attacks on the editorial page demonstrate, we don't get much support from our state officials. And even though Rep. Feige is under the impression that all of our "capable" people have left the region, Bristol Bay's residents are smart enough to realize you can't trade a renewable resource for a finite one.

Robert Heyano is president of Ekuk Village Council and chairman of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium working for the protection of the Bristol Bay watershed from large-scale metallic sulfide mines. He lives in Dillingham.