In January, three clergy members from the Orthodox Church of America traveled on a plane owned by one of Alaska's wealthiest, most prominent citizens to various villages in Southwest Alaska. When they disembarked they headed to frozen waterways in each community. There they stood on the ice and dipped their hand into a hole -- carved out of ice and in the shape of the Cross -- and blessed the water, an annual ritual celebrating the sacredness of the natural world.
Among the group was Bishop Benjamin Peterson of San Francisco, interim leader of the Alaska diocese. Two Alaska-based priests joined him. One of them was Father Michael Oleksa, among the most well-known and beloved religious leaders in the Last Frontier.
Some of the trip was videotaped and is now being used in an anti-Pebble mine campaign. Oleksa, chancellor of the Alaska diocese, oversees 95 churches and of late has been the public face for a group urging Lake and Peninsula Borough residents to vote yes on an initiative that would hurt Pebble's prospects for development.
The Pebble deposit sits several miles from a couple of rural villages. It's the biggest undeveloped gold and copper deposit in the world, according to the geologists working to bring online a Pebble mine. It happens to be in the Bristol Bay watershed of Southwestern Alaska -- one of the largest commercial fisheries in the world. Critics say that if built, the pristine area would be forever changed, its prized salmon fishery downstream from the deposit possibly decimated. Proponents say a future Pebble mine would bring economic development to an impoverished region; that the ore can be mined responsibly and without impacting Bristol Bay's salmon or Pacific herring populations.
The stakes have been high and the fight dirty since 2004, when Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals entered the scene purchasing development rights to the fortune that is the Pebble deposit: more than 100 million ounces of gold, now valued at close to $2,000 per ounce, along with more than 80 billion pounds of recoverable copper resting deep under the tundra and billions of pounds of molybdenum.
But the most recent Pebble political fight -- over a local vote that has the potential to mothball the mine -- is even dirtier. This time, the Orthodox Church, the most powerful church in the area, has gotten involved. And accusations are flying against Oleksa, the beloved priest.
On one side of the fight, Pebble supporters are accusing Oleksa of leveraging the issue to financially benefit his church. An email that's been leaked to the media proves Oleksa's motivations, Pebble supporters believe.
For his part, Oleksa is accusing pro-Pebble forces of potentially hacking into his emails, and trying to co-opt him with a job offer so that he wouldn't fight the anti-mining initiative.
One thing is for sure: the fight is not about to let up anytime soon. Fortunes are at stake. A subsistence way of life could potentially be at stake. And neither Oleksa nor the pro-Pebble forces are going to go down without a big, bruising battle.
The church and the billionaire
At some point in the clergy's Southwest Alaska visit last January, the group went to a nine-bedroom, 14,000-square-foot private lodge on an inholding within Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, an area neighboring the Pebble deposit. The lodge and the plane that took them there are owned by Bob Gillam, founder of the financial firm McKinley Capital Management and one of Alaska's wealthiest citizens. Gillam is also one of Alaska's most outspoken opponents of Pebble. His latest battle is being fought on behalf of the so-called "Save our Salmon" initiative. His money is being used to influence Lake and Pen voters into passing it in an election scheduled for Oct. 4.
The ballot initiative would give those local areas control over the mine's permitting process. The mine's future rests in obtaining dozens of permits. If the initiative passes, permits could not be granted for any resource extraction activity that would impact salmon-producing streams, which if built, Pebble will indisputably do.
Pebble Limited Partnership -- Northern Dynasty Minerals and Anglo American PLC -- have fought tooth and nail to keep the initiative from voters. The state of Alaska also opposed it. But an Anchorage Superior Court judge ruled to allow the election to proceed; afterward, the various legal issues and inevitable appeals -- should Pebble lose -- could be sorted out. Pebble then petitioned the Alaska Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
Gillam paid for that deep winter visit, planned and coordinated by Oleksa, to Southwest Alaska by the Orthodox clergy.
Since the trip, the faces of both Oleksa and Bishop Peterson have been used in an ad campaign, financed largely by Gillam, urging citizens to vote yes on the anti-Pebble initiative. A full-page, color advertisement in the Aug. 15 edition of The Bristol Bay Times featured a picture of Oleksa and a letter from him to the people in the area.
"No one will want to live in the neighborhood of this ecological disaster site," Oleksa writes, among other things, in the ad. "It will be ugly and dirty. One generation will profit, but the land and environment will be disrupted and destroyed forever after."
Oleksa has appeared in television ads as well, speaking passionately against the proposed mine and the potential devastation it could wreak on Bristol Bay communities and their subsistence lifestyles. A flyer that was recently mailed to local residents bearing Oleksa's face urges them to vote yes on the initiative.
Peterson, the San Franciscan Orthodox bishop, is also in at least one anti-Pebble ad -- in the June edition of Alaska magazine. It features Peterson standing among villagers on the ice and is headlined: "Someone Has To Protect The Water."
Because of its size -- Pebble would by all accounts be the largest open-pit mine in North America -- its location and vast riches, the Pebble debate is one of the most controversial, most contentious and most expensive in Alaska's history. The battle has brought together all sorts of strange bedfellows in support and opposition even before one single permit has been issued.
But a 2010 email sent by Oleksa to his bishop presents an especially nasty, seemingly damning twist in the fight. The email discusses the winter trip by Orthodox clergy to Southwest Alaska. It also discusses the Orthodox Church's opposition to the proposed Pebble mine. The email exchange was leaked to the Alaska Dispatch on the condition that the leaker not be identified.
The bulk of the long email does show that Oleksa feels passionately about the potential devastation a Pebble mine could inflict on Alaska Native culture and the region's rural lifestyle. But Oleksa also wrote about the potential benefit his church could enjoy by hooking up with Gillam in opposition to Pebble.
First, there was the trip itself. A visit by the clergy to the villages in the dead of an Alaska winter would be prohibitively expensive, Oleksa noted, and the "parishes could not afford to cover the costs." But there was even more that the church might get out of Gillam: land, perhaps to build a new church, or maybe even low-interest loans.
I also foresee that, if we remain in close association with Mr. Gillam and we want, let us suppose, to build a church in Anchorage, he would loan us funds at a very low interest rate and would donate generously to our project. ... Perhaps we could interest him in buying some land for us, or supporting an assisted living complex for our elders. I know he is interested in charitable activities.
Gillam, he added, is "one of the richest men in the USA. A real Maddoff," Oleksa called him, a billionaire who loves the area and "fears that Pebble will destroy the entire region."
Oleksa doesn't deny sending the email but is outraged that someone would leak what he called private correspondence to his bishop. "How did someone get into our correspondence?" he asked when reached by phone this week. "Do you understand how offensive this is? That correspondence -- between me and my bishop -- should be between me and my bishop."
He doesn't believe that anybody else was privy to the note who would have passed it on. Oleksa said he lost all of his emails in December -- an act that he's beginning to suspect might be sabotage -- though he admits he doesn't have any proof.
In any case, Oleksa said that the exchange was "unfortunate." Gillam is interested in helping the Alaska Natives in the region, but there's been no discussion of giving money to the church. "We are on the same page, though not because of any financial relationship," Oleksa said. In fact, the only money given the church so far has come from a foundation set up by the mining companies that have given about $50,000 to restore Orthodox churches in Alaska, a process that neither Peterson or Oleksa was involved in. It's as well as other money for churches in the state.
Contacted for comment on the email chain, Gillam referred questions to Art Hackney, a well-known Republican consultant in Alaska who also serves as deputy treasurer for "Alaskans for Bristol Bay -- Vote Yes on the Save Our Salmon Initiative," the group spearheading the initiative.
Gillam has paid about $400,000, so far, to see that the "Save Our Salmon Initiative" passes in Lake and Pen.
Hackney denied any quid pro quo between Gillam and Oleksa. He said that to his knowledge, neither Gillam nor the group had given money to the Orthodox Church. The only thing they have received from Gillam was that trip to rural Alaska in January, Hackney said.
"Save our Salmon" did not need to report that trip on disclosure forms because the group had yet to be formed or even conceived, Hackney added.
Nor has the group paid Oleksa or the church for the ads. "He was not solicited to come out on behalf of the initiative," Hackney said. "It was something that he chose to do."
Bishop Benjamin Peterson said that he vaguely recalled the email, but also denied that the church has benefited at all from Gillam as a result of Oleksa's involvement in the campaign -- aside from the trip to the area.
"Michael (Oleksa) has all sorts of interesting ideas," the bishop said in an interview, and often sent the bishop long emails, the details of which were often lost on him. He did say, however, that "if money is exchanging hands in this arena, I don't want my church involved in it."
Benjamin said that he had told Oleksa as much when he met with him. But in his short reply to Oleksa's email, he did not indicate any misgivings about benefiting from a connection to Gillam.
"I see no reason why this could not happen and support it," he wrote. "If there is something I can do, let me know. January is not my favorite time for visiting villages, but I might be able to come for some or all of it. For this to work, we need to get some real press … and even press beyond AK. NY Times, LA Times, SF Chronicle," the email back to Oleksa reads in full.
Has the church’s involvement remained sacramental and pastoral?
The Orthodox Church, formerly the Russian Orthodox Church, has had a long presence in Alaska, particularly in the rural parts of the state. The first church was established in 1794 by Orthodox monks in what was then the Russian territory of Kodiak. With increasing political turmoil in Russia, the church grew and prospered in Alaska, particularly in its rural areas.
And the strongest voice for rural Alaska in the church is Oleksa, who was 30 when he was assigned to rural Kodiak in 1970. Since moving to the state, he's been a tireless advocate for Alaska Native culture and for environmental justice, authoring several books on the subject. For his efforts he has received numerous awards from all sorts of state agencies and from the Alaska Federation of Natives.
And Oleksa and the church have long been against the Pebble mine, even before hooking up with Gillam. In fact, it was a resolution that the Orthodox Church in America's Diocese of Alaska passed at its annual statewide gathering in 2009 that attracted Gillam's attention, according to Oleksa. It did not mention Pebble specifically, but it blessed all "development" that would enhance the quality of life in villages. It also withheld any such blessing from "development" that seriously threatened to poison or pollute the lakes and rivers, which the "Church and its largely Alaska Native membership considers holy and sacred."
Oleksa wrote that what particularly impressed Gillam was that the resolution and the church did not "attack" anyone. "Gillam is looking for allies and he found us," he wrote in the April email. And he went on to assure Benjamin that the church need not mention Pebble directly and that the relationship with Gillam and Pebble "remains sacramental and pastoral."
That changed, Oleksa said in the interview, after he and the Pebble consortium began to talk about a job earlier this year to work with the staff as a consultant in cross-cultural communication, a topic he regularly lectures on and teaches at both University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University. He was interested, he said, believing that he might do some good for the community.
Oleksa interviewed twice with John Shively, the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, but as time went on, and the job offer kept being put off, he felt that he was being strung along, for a reason. He began to suspect that he was being used, and that the job dangling in front of him was a means to keep him out of the fight against the initiative.
He felt as if he were being "bribed and bought," he said.
Then he began to hear things when he traveled in the region. It was a whisper campaign, Oleksa said, put out by Pebble trying to convince the citizens that a subsistence way of life was no longer viable, and that in fact was not very important anymore to the area.
It was this, he said, that most galled him and built his ire against Pebble. "How could they say that when whole communities rely on subsistence hunting and fishing? It was a lie."
It was then that he decided to actively fight against Pebble.
Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole characterized Oleksa's comments as "unfair." Pebble did meet a few times to discuss a job with him, he said, but the conversation never advanced and denied that it had to do with keeping him quiet. He also said that Pebble is committed to subsistence, but did say that it "takes money to subsist in this society."
Heatwole also said that he was aware of the email Oleksa sent to the bishop, but declined to comment on it.
'Where do they think that gold comes from?'
The fight doesn't sit well with everyone in the Orthodox Church. Some of his parishioners have gone as far as to write the archbishop in New York complaining about Oleksa's involvement. "They're going after my own people and turning them against me" Oleksa said, accusing those who have written the letters of being on Pebble's payroll.
Greg Anelon, for one, is uncomfortable with the church's involvement in the Pebble fight. Anelon lives in Newhalen, a village near the Pebble deposit, and attended one of the rural services which brought the priests out to the villages. He is, in a way, on Pebble's payroll. He works for Iliamna Development Corp., which services the mine. He's also the chair of a group fighting the anti-Pebble initiative. And he's also a long-time member of the Orthodox Church, as were his ancestors.
"To me it [the visit] was political," Anelon said. "The church, being a faith-based organization, shouldn't be part of the issue."
Anelon also saw the email exchange between Oleksa and the bishop, and thinks there is something wrong with that relationship. "I can read between the lines," he said. For him, that email confirmed for him that the church was being bought by Gillam. The visit there, he thinks, "had nothing to do with the Bible, it was to help us build churches."
It doesn't make sense to Anelon that the Orthodox priests serve the sacrament in gold goblets, and have "big gold crosses on their necks," he said, and yet they're against mining. "Where do they think that gold comes from?" he said.
Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com
Alaska Dispatch reporter Jill Burke contributed to this article. Contact Jill at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com