OPINION: Westport. North coast of California. 1950s. Okies, Arkies, Italians, Finns, and Portagees. Loggers and lumber mill workers. Fishermen and ranchers. Five finger ferns hanging over shady creeks meandering through endless forests of redwoods and Douglas firs. Dark pools full of darting trout. The ocean rocky coast with abalones, mussels, rockfish and surf smelt. A paradise no doubt. And me born right into the middle of it.
The grim, crushing years of World War II were followed by a great sigh of relief. A car in every garage, a chicken in every pot. Life all of a sudden got upbeat, enthusiasm was everywhere. The economy boomed, kids were born, houses were built. Life was good.
Winter evenings in the early '50s I would sit with Ma on the back porch of our house next to Wages Creek. We'd listen to the silence, to an occasional owl conversation, and to salmon and steelhead splashing their way up riffles. Now and then my dad would spear one for dinner. The trout limit was 15 per day, a real set-up for a kid with a willow pole and a dry fly.
But something was not quite right. Even a kid could sense that. Along with the good times came the advent of the chain saw and the D8 Cat and a building boom which brought unrestrained logging. Bigger and better and more salmon boats were built. Annual taxes on standing timber forced land owners to log. "Sustained yield" wasn't part of the thinking; how could it have been? People were still reeling from the one-two punch of the Great Depression and the horrors of war. Winter rains turned the creeks to chocolate milk. The near-shore coastal ocean was a silty brown.
By the late 1950s the goose was not laying so many golden eggs. But she was still waddling along. We all had developed an addiction for those eggs of gold, and with ever-improving technology we kept on squeezing out even more eggs. We were blind stewards of the land, riding the crest of a wave. Nobody thought it would end. Then the goose died. Commercial salmon seasons shortened; some years there was no season at all. Lumber mills closed. No more goose, no more paradise. Or was it the other way around? We were all responsible for the crash. Even me with my willow pole. Even bystanders who didn't speak up. Check out this sentence in a letter I got from California Fish and Game in April of 2012: "Sadly, our native Northern California salmon and steelhead populations have been in steady decline and now are listed endangered species."
In 1965 I headed north and with a great stroke of luck found Cordova, Alaska. Here again were pristine mountains, streams and ocean, a lot like where I had come from. Here were great, untarnished runs of salmon. Good salmon management techniques, many learned from the dying goose of the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts have kept our Cordova salmon populations intact and thus our local quality of life at a high level. But we have to be ever-vigilant and guard the goose.
And that is why I am so foaming-at-the-mouth against the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine in Western Alaska, right in the heart of the Bristol Bay fishery that produces up to 40 million red (sockeye) salmon every summer. Bristol Bay, like the goose that lays the golden eggs, is a magic gourmet grocery store that restocks its own shelves.
All we have to do is take care of the store.
No one disagrees that mining is essential. But not this mine. Not in this place.
The World Gold Association says that 73 percent of the world's annual gold production goes for jewelry. Jewelry!
The state of Washington prohibits copper brake linings in vehicles because as brakes wear out, the copper turns to dust and gets in the streams. A little too much copper in a salmon stream disorients the salmon on their migratory paths. And we are considering a giant open-pit copper mine in the main watershed of Bristol Bay? Talk about being disoriented! Are you foaming at the mouth yet?
No matter what Pebble mine promoters say, a huge open pit gold/copper mine and its pollution potential is a poisonous threat to the long term future of Bristol Bay. When Governor Jay Hammond heard about the Pebble mine, he said the only worse place for such a mine would be in his kitchen. Pebble mine promises some people's idea of glittery economic glory for fifty years. I'm 66 years old, and I can tell you, fifty years is the blink of an eye. On the other hand, a healthy Bristol Bay will produce gourmet food for untold centuries into the future, just as it has for the last 11,000 years of human habitation. Can you believe that this is even up for discussion?
This is just not a threat to locals. It's a threat to everyone, anywhere, who enjoys Bristol Bay red salmon. Its a threat to my 15-year-old niece in California who looks forward to those salmon showing up at her local market. It's a threat to the job of my old Westport friend, Mike Stillwell, who runs that market. And so forth across the nation.
So what would you like to see on your grandkid's dinner plate? A juicy salmon steak, or some gold jewelry alongside a few goose feathers?
Now is the time to stand up and scream against Pebble Mine. Join the Renewable Resources Coalition. Read the history of other gold/copper mines. Read Jared Diamond's book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" where he talks about mining in Montana, beginning on page 35. Educate yourself; don't swallow the mine promoters' stale song and dance about the improved safety of new mining technology.
Don't sit around with your teeth in your mouth. Do something.
Gerald Masolini is a 2012 Cordova Citizen of the Year.
The preceding commentary originally appeared in The Cordova Times and is republished here with permission.
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