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Salmon or gold: Alaska ballot initiative puts Pebble Mine to a statewide vote

Eric Christopher Adams

Opponents of the Pebble Project believe Alaskans should get a chance to choose which resource the state prizes most from Bristol Bay -- gold or wild salmon -- and they're one step closer to bringing the issue before voters.

A little more than a year after voters out in the remote Lake and Peninsula Borough of Southwest Alaska rejected the Pebble mine project by narrowly approving a ballot initiative to ban open-pit mining in the watershed of Bristol Bay -- home to one of the world's most profitable wild salmon fisheries -- mine opponents have submitted another initiative aimed at blocking the megaproject.

Only this time, Alaskans statewide will get to give Pebble a thumbs up or down -- if sponsors of the new initiative can collect enough signatures to bring it to a vote.

The latest ballot initiative, called "Bristol Bay Forever" and available to read at the Renewable Resources Coalition website, harkens back to a law enacted in 1972 by the Alaska Legislature that designated part of Bristol Bay as a fisheries reserve. The designation gave the Legislature ultimate authority over whether the state could develop or explore for oil and gas in Bristol Bay.

The law banned leasing or licensing public lands near the fisheries reserve "until the legislature by appropriate resolution specifically finds that the entry will not constitute danger to the fishery," according to a recent decision from the Alaska Department of Law.

Attorney General Michael Geraghty concluded that the Bristol Bay Forever initiative meets state requirements for a statewide ballot initiative. Last week, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell certified the Bristol Bay Forever initiative, which, if enacted, would protect Bristol Bay wild salmon and waters within the fisheries reserve from mining.

How? By requiring the Legislature to enact a law concluding that any mining projects like Pebble would in no way endanger salmon.

Initiative sponsors John Holman of King Salmon, Mark A. Niver of Wasilla, and Christina Salmon of Igiugig have one year to gather 30,169 signatures so that "Bristol Bay Forever" would qualify for fall 2014 elections.