Business/Economy

In barrier to Pebble mine, Alaska Native corporation and groups set aside land for conservation

Pebble Mine in Alaska

An effort involving an Alaska Native corporation and land conservation groups will permanently protect 44,000 acres in Southwest Alaska and block a key transportation route to the embattled Pebble copper and gold project, the groups announced.

The land, owned by the Pedro Bay Corp., is located off the northeastern shores of Lake Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska, in an area where project developer Pebble Limited Partnership had favored an access road to the mineral deposit from Cook Inlet.

The Conservation Fund and Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust worked with the Native corporation on the agreement. The Conservation Fund will purchase the easements for $20 million while the Bristol Bay land trust will hold the easements and work with the corporation to enforce their terms.

“They are perpetual easements and this is important primarily because this is prime salmon habitat,” said Tim Troll, executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust.

The mineral deposit is located about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage near Bristol Bay and the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

Pebble Limited has pursued development of a mine in the region for more than a decade, but the project has faced strong opposition from tribes, conservation groups and fishermen. Pebble Limited insists the mine can operate safely without damaging the fishery.

The mine faces stiff headwinds from the federal government. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed blocking the mine under a special agency action, something mine opponents say could permanently doom the project. The agency is expected to make a final decision by February. A different agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has rejected the project as well. Pebble is appealing that decision, but the EPA decision would trump whatever the Corps decides.

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Mike Heatwole, a spokesman with Pebble Limited, said Pedro Bay Corp.’s actions are within its rights.

“We respect the rights of Alaska Native corporation shareholders to make decisions about what to do on their lands and hope the Biden Administration will do the same for other Alaska Native corporation shareholders who may have differing views about what they would like (to) do on their lands, especially regarding the Pebble Project,” he said. “It is worth noting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Pebble Project shows it can be responsibly developed without harm to the Bristol Bay fishery and provide year-round jobs for the communities closest to the proposed project.”

No matter what EPA decides, the conservation easement will prevent construction of an industrial road proposed north of the lake in perpetuity, Troll said. The conservation easements don’t allow right-of-way agreements for an industrial road, the conservation groups said in a prepared statement.

“The northern route is off the table,” Troll said.

Pebble has proposed other routes to the mine, but the northern route was chosen as the project’s preferred option because it was considered safer for the environment.

The Pedro Bay Corp. represents more than 200 shareholders with roots in Pedro Bay village, in the northeastern Lake Iliamna area.

Much of the funding for the purchase was provided by the Alaska Venture Fund and Patagonia’s Holdfast Collective, the statement said. The money was raised over 18 months and included other donors, the statement said.

An official with the Alaska Native corporation did not immediately return a call seeking comment for this article Tuesday.

Similar efforts involving the land conservation groups in recent years have led to conservation easements for 15,000 acres associated with islands in Lake Iliamna, in agreements that involved the Pedro Bay Corp. and Iliamna Natives Limited, another Alaska Native village corporation in the area.

Those deals, together valued at $5 million, protect genetically unique sockeye and haul-outs for the lake’s rare population of freshwater seals, Troll said.

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Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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