Chuitna salmon far more valuable than Chuitna coal; kill PacRim's plan

Late summer in Alaska is a wonderful time of year when we all work to fill our freezers and pantries to get ready for winter. We fish for and process salmon, pick berries, harvest and preserve our gardens, and get ready for the fall moose hunt.

Unfortunately, this summer my husband and I are once again busy defending the salmon streams and moose habitat we rely on when we should be out there collecting the bounty.

Instead of harvesting our gardens and picking the bountiful berries our state provides, we have to attend a Department of Natural Resources hearing to determine if Alaska should keep water in streams for salmon or give 100 percent of water in a stream to an Outside coal company to ship coal to Asia.

If this were just one hearing, I would completely understand. Alaskans should have healthy debates about the future of our state and about balancing resource development with natural resource protection. But it's not the first hearing, or even the first summer; this is the eighth straight year that the state of Alaska has held residents of Beluga and Tyonek in a permitting purgatory, spending our time and money fighting to protect the salmon we rely on.

Eight years ago we found out that PacRim Coal, owned by a couple of Texas billionaires, proposes to strip-mine through nearly 14 miles of salmon stream on Middle Creek, an important salmon spawning tributary of the Chuitna River. One hundred percent of this coal would be loaded onto ships and sent overseas.

When we first heard that an Outside coal company wanted to strip-mine 300 feet deep through the salmon stream where we taught our grandkids to fish, we joined with our neighbors and founded a group called the Chuitna Citizens Coalition. For eight years, we have attended sports shows, talked to fellow Alaskans, and collected tens of thousands of signatures opposing PacRim Coal's plan to mine through a salmon stream.

Nearly five years ago, our group applied for an in-stream flow reservation -- an important tool to keep water in streams for salmon. Despite spending thousands of dollars to provide the DNR with studies they asked for, it took a 2013 Superior Court decision to finally get DNR to move forward on our application.


The fact that Alaskans have to pay the people that are supposed to be working for us to make the best decisions for our state, fish, wildlife and water is ridiculous. The Alaska Constitution makes it clear that our natural resources should be used for the good of all residents.

During a 45-day public comment period on our application earlier this year, over 7,500 comments supported our goal of keeping water in streams for salmon. It's clear that in the choice between salmon and coal, Alaskans choose salmon.

Now it's time for our leaders to do the same. After years of stalling, it's time to make a decision on our application.

PacRim's proposal would be the first time a company has been allowed to strip-mine directly through a salmon stream, and set a terrible precedent that would leave salmon streams across our state at risk. Our story serves as a cautionary tale: If we allow this project to move forward, your favorite salmon stream could be next.

With a new governor and administration whose transition team listed a "Fish First Policy" as one of the top recommendations, I am optimistic that our new leaders will side with Alaskans and choose salmon over coal at the Chuitna River.

Doing so would allow my husband and I, and all of the residents of Beluga and Tyonek, to get back to what really matters: Living the Alaskan lifestyle and enjoying the amazing bounty of food the natural resources of our state provide.

Judy Heilman is a resident of Beluga and founding member of the Chuitna Citizens Coalition.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.