Compass: State of Alaska should permanently protect Bristol Bay watershed

The EPA has invoked its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay salmon from the mining of the Pebble ore deposit in Southwest Alaska. EPA acted at the request of Alaskan tribes, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, and an Alaska coalition of commercial and sport fishing groups, businesses, and conservationists. Now is the time for Alaska to step forward and rightfully take the necessary action for an enduring resolution for protection of Bristol Bay salmon.

What is fundamentally at issue here is the compatibility of large-scale metallic sulfide mining with other values on the state-owned land in the perfect salmon factory that is the Bristol Bay watershed.

In answering Alaskans' request for intervention, EPA initiated a three-year peer-reviewed scientific study, which included opportunity for public and industry input. The findings were clear. The open pit for the Pebble mine could directly destroy over 7,000 acres of Bristol Bay headwaters and 90 miles of streams that serve the most productive wild-salmon fishery anywhere in the world. Its waste facilities could require an earthen dam taller than the Washington Monument and completely inundate another 12,000 acres with potentially toxic material that would need to be contained forever. As a further threat, history has shown that a mine of this nature almost inevitably experiences a significant failure in its operational infrastructure, placing the watershed at risk.

For over 40 years, state and federal leaders worked together to protect the Bristol Bay salmon and watershed. Every governor -- Republican, Democrat and independent -- fought and worked for this goal from statehood in 1959 until 2002.

This all worked until 2005 when a new state management plan for the state land, located at the very heart of the Bristol Bay watershed, was unveiled. With minimal public review, it appallingly reversed 90 percent of the area from salmon habitat to the primary purpose of mineral development. While an intense litigation and public effort led to more protective amendments to the Area Plan being put back in place in 2013, the lightning quick rollbacks, like those in 2005, from a future administration could easily happen again.

There are three elements necessary for an enduring resolution: a state law designating the state land as salmon spawning habitat, elimination by the state of all current and future mining claims, and fair compensation to current mining claim owners from private donations.

The State of Alaska must take responsibility for the use of its lands in the Bristol Bay watershed. While EPA can rightfully protect waters of Bristol Bay using the Clean Water Act, it does not -- nor should it -- decide state land use designations. Passing a state statute of salmon habitat designation is the most lasting action than can be taken. But this alone is not enough. Permanent salmon habitat will require the state to forbid any further issuance of mining claims. And, finally, existing claims will always pose a threat to attract new efforts to develop a mine. Here there is an opportunity for Alaskans to work with a private initiative to negotiate a fair compensation for existing claim owners. The necessary funds for the purchase of those claims can be raised from private donations contingent upon the State passing the land designation statute and forbidding future mining claims.

The high economic value of the Bristol Bay salmon has been widely acknowledged. But there are other values at stake. Salmon are the providers of subsistence, health, nutrition, a culture and spirituality for a people, and are the foundation of a vast ecosystem and abundant wildlife. Protecting such a national treasure by putting fish first allows us to pass it on to the next generation undiminished. This is a noble cause, and one that Alaskans will proudly pursue.

Tony Knowles served as governor of Alaska from 1994 to 2002.