For three days this summer, the community of Ninilchik on the Kenai Peninsula more than doubled in size as thousands of people equipped with campers and tents crowded into a hay-covered field. Some came for the music, some for the party and others to save Alaska’s salmon.
“I like the music and the bounce house and the vendors and I can’t imagine salmon gone,” said 10-year-old Ruth Taygan, who traveled to Salmonstock from Chugiak last weekend with her mother, father and younger sister in the family van.
Salmonstock surfaced in 2011 as the brainchild of a handful of people. One of those was Anders Gustafson, executive director at the Anchorage-based Renewable Resources Foundation and Coalition. Gustafson worked as a river guide in the Bristol Bay area when the Pebble Ltd. Partnership flagged the headwaters of two salmon-producing streams, which flow into the bay, as the proposed site of a mine.
"I was thrust into the Pebble mine site," Gustafson said.
A fierce battle erupted between those wanting to protect the Bristol Bay watershed that produces half the world's wild sockeye salmon and those interested in developing a huge copper and gold prospect that lay underneath.
“I was really inspired to take on that fight,” Gustafson said. He left the river and joined the nonprofits. “It was just a really emotionally hard fight for so many years and I felt that we needed to have something more positive and fun.”
Salmonstock was born, a product of the Renewable Resources Foundation with help from the Renewable Resources Coalition.
The music festival features scores of bands and educational booths. Last weekend, volunteers passed out informational flyers and anti-Pebble mine stickers. Fire-breathing salmon flanked the main stage. Face-painted kids sprinted up an inflatable slide and hundreds packed into beer gardens with their Salmonstock-issued reusable pint glasses.
Will Taygan, Ruth’s father, said he first brought his daughters to Salmonstock three years ago. The 42-year-old professor at Mat-Su College lauded Salmonstock as Alaska’s only festival of “Lower 48 quality." It also informs.
“It’s a great spot to come to get up-to-date on information,” Taygan said. “We’ll just go up to a booth and say, ‘What do you have to teach us today?’”
Gustafson estimates that this year saw the music festival’s largest crowd yet. Organizers continued to count ticket sales Wednesday, but expected to come out slightly ahead of last year, when more than 5,500 people showed up at the gates, he said.
Profits from ticket sales -- which range from $124 for a three-day pass to $55 for a single-day pass, if bought in advance -- feed back into the Renewable Resources Foundation, Gustafson said. The foundation is an educational nonprofit and the Renewable Resources Coalition, a nonprofit trade organization, serves as its lobbying arm.
Gustafson said the nonprofits lost money when putting on Salmonstock until last year. Profits go to the Renewable Resources Foundation community education and outreach programs.
“We’re just looking to break even every year and really get the word out and build the community," Gustafson said.
Becca Wolfe, 21, sat with her younger sister, 19-year-old Avery, outside the festival early Saturday morning. The sisters from Anchorage volunteered at Salmonstock, working four-hour shifts in exchange for free entry.
The sisters commented on the diverse crowd drawn to Salmonstock, from the man who trotted by in a white one-piece pajama suit to the group crossing a tightrope nearby.
“I’m here for various reasons,” Wolfe said. “I’m here -- for the official reason -- because I oppose Pebble mine, and we were also saying last night, I’m here because it’s the biggest party in Alaska.”
Only a few weeks before the Wolfe sisters trekked to Salmonstock, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would take extraordinary action to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon runs. The EPA proposed caps on the miles of streams and acres of wetlands that could be impacted by the Pebble mine, forcing the Pebble Ltd. Partnership to scale back its design.
The EPA is taking comment on the proposal until Sept. 19 and will hold a series of public hearings, including one on Tuesday, Aug. 12, at the Egan Center in Anchorage. Gustafson encouraged activists to go.
“A lot of people do feel like the fight’s over, but it’s really not,” Gustafson said. “Don’t ever assume you’ve got it won. Don’t take it for granted.”
Gustafson said he does not expect Salmonstock to disappear if the proposed Pebble mine does. Perhaps they’ll pick up a new cause, he suggested.
“Salmonstock is really becoming a political force unto itself," he said.