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It's simple for Alaska: Fish first means no to Chuitna coal project

  • Author: Shannyn Moore
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 3, 2015

In 1920, the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Even today we recognize that decision as one of the worst in the history of baseball.

Today, we Alaskans are facing an even worse trade: wild salmon for coal.

In the next two weeks, the Walker administration must decide whether to grant the right to keep water in a salmon stream -- something most Alaskans would consider a no-brainer -- or instead award the water rights to a coal company so it can dig up the stream, kill off the salmon there forever and export the coal.

I'm talking about the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine across Upper Cook Inlet from Anchorage. Alaskans who fish and hunt in the Chuitna watershed applied to reserve water in Middle Creek -- a tributary of the Chuitna River -- to keep it from being destroyed.

When I was growing up, we fished out of Tuxedni Bay. The Chuitna was known as the "Kenai of the West Side" because it had a huge king run. To this day, the river supports all five species of Pacific salmon.

In 2009, Alaskans who lived in the area filed to reserve water in the stream for fish, and the Parnell Administration did ... nothing. I know. No surprise. As concerned citizens, they kept pushing. They went to court and argued that under our constitution Alaskans own the fish and water resources because we are, as Wally Hickel was ever reminding us, the "Owner State."

They also noted that state law specifically encourages everyday Alaskans to reserve water in streams, to help maintain the Alaska lifestyle. It's illegal to drive an ATV across a salmon stream, so it makes sense that turning a salmon stream into a giant pit should also be frowned upon. And finally, they pointed out that they'd paid $4,500 in filing fees, and their application deserved to be heard. Not surprisingly, the court agreed, and ordered the Department of Natural Resources to process the applications.

At that point, the coal company decided it better do something. So it filed applications to reserve the very same water. The coal company wasn't trying to protect salmon; instead, it wanted the right to "de-water" Middle Creek so it could mine the coal for Chinese furnaces.

Gov. Bill Walker has a big decision. A precedent-setting decision. Something bigger than Medicaid and the gas pipeline. The decision will protect or jeopardize the future of salmon in every one of our rivers and streams for decades or centuries to come.

Pointing out all the flaws in the Chuitna coal project is like being a mosquito in a nudist colony -- a target-rich environment. First, coal as an industry is dying if not already walking dead. It's made from dinosaurs, and the stock market is treating it like one. Over the past three years, more than two dozen U.S. coal producers have declared bankruptcy. You know, corporate bankruptcy, the last step in privatizing the profits and socializing the risks of selfish and ill-conceived business decisions.

Alaska's only coal mine -- owned by the Usibelli family -- has seen its exports fall 57 percent in the past four years. The company just announced that it is stopping all exports of coal for the foreseeable future.

No wonder a coal market analysis by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis said, "The bottom line is that there is no need for the Chuitna mine. There are no price or other market signals to support it. And given the 'either-or' use of the water in Cook Inlet -- a salmon fishery versus a coal mine -- preserving the fishery makes much better economic sense for Alaska."

Keep in mind that the mining industry pays next to nothing in royalties and taxes to Alaska. Really. Mining taxes haven't changed since 1955. That's 1955, a year when "The Ballad Of Davy Crockett" was a hit song, Dwight Eisenhower was president, and the average home cost $10,950.

The state collects more revenue from commercial fishing than mining. Fishing is a perpetual industry -- if we don't screw it up. Coal doesn't spawn anything but smoke and dust, and when it's no longer profitable, all you have is a toxic hole in the ground.

It's impossible to build a new wild salmon stream after you've killed all the salmon -- hell, destroyed every living thing -- by stripping away the earth. It's never been done, and the best restoration scientists in the world say it never will be done. The coal company likes to trot out examples of gravel mines and other minimal excavations as proof it can build a new salmon stream. These are the guys who traded Babe Ruth. They just don't get it.

The idea that they can destroy a wild salmon stream and then put it back with hatchery fish is lunacy. That's what the people in Europe and New England and the Pacific Northwest thought when they destroyed their own salmon habitats. Salmon are like stock portfolios, and we need to maintain their genetic diversity to equip them to weather good times and bad.

After his election, Gov. Walker wisely convened a transition team of Alaskans to help shape his leadership. His Fisheries Transition Team made an important recommendation. Unanimously. They said Alaska should adopt a "fish first" policy. In the case of Chuitna, that would mean putting a salmon stream above a strip mine.

Walker has a lot on his mind right now. The state's fiscal crisis threatens the state's core services. Exxon is dragging its feet in the gas line talks. But in 20 or 50 years, when Alaskans look back at the Chuitna decision, they'll recognize it as a huge fork in the road, as the place we decided just how important the health of our salmon fisheries -- and the families and communities they support -- really was to us.

Shannyn Moore is a radio broadcaster.

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

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