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How an Alaska village made millions protecting unique freshwater seals

Rayn Aaberg had an idea that made millions for his Alaska Native village corporation and protected the strange and wonderful freshwater seals of Lake Iliamna at the same time.

Aaberg, 30, came of age during the fight over the proposed Pebble mine, which divided his seasonal village of Pedro Bay, with only 20 year-round residents, and crippled its corporation with conflict. When he joined the Pedro Bay Corp.'s board three years ago, Pebble had already fizzled.

Now, two years into being CEO and president, he has found ways to make money from the village's sustainable assets. In Aaberg's version of the future, Pedro Bay's self-determined conservation efforts would bring permanent income.

Pedro Bay lies at the east end of Iliamna, the 1,000-square-mile, 1,000-foot-deep lake southwest of Anchorage in the sockeye salmon heaven of the Bristol Bay region. At some point in the last several thousand years, a few harbor seals made it up the Kvichak River and found the many islands near Pedro Bay to their liking. They thrived in the freshwater and the rich diet of salmon and lake fish.

These seals are extraordinarily rare. Only five lakes in the world have seals -- two in Russia, one in Finland, one in Canada, and Lake Iliamna. And Iliamna has about 400 of them.

Aaberg grew up learning to fish and hunt in Pedro Bay. His father, a Yup'ik from Dillingham, was the school teacher, and his mother, a Dena'ina Athabascan from Pedro Bay, was the school counselor. The school has since closed, but Aaberg joined in the seal hunt as a boy and goes back a couple of times a year. The family moved to Anchorage when he was in elementary school.

The area and its seals got more outside attention when the Pebble Partnership proposed its massive mine upriver. Pebble contracted with Pedro Bay Corp. for security, bear guards and paramedics. With that money coming in, Pedro Bay stayed neutral on the mine for years, despite peoples' concerns.

Meanwhile, environmentalists highlighted the unique seals as a reason not to build the mine. The Center for Biological Diversity filed an Endangered Species Act petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service, citing threats to the salmon the seals eat from the mine and from climate change.

Pedro Bay opposed the listing, with some other Native groups, fearful it would affect their use of the lake. An official with the center said that would not happen unless villagers needed a federal permit for a large project that would hurt seals.

Years passed. Pebble left. The endangered species process disappeared from view.

That was when Aaberg came on the scene. He had been to college, studied construction management, worked for other Native corporations, and came back to look at what he could do as a leader of Pedro Bay Corp., which had run out of steam with the loss of the Pebble work.

As a board member, Aaberg pushed the idea of leasing the right for fishing lodges to take boats on the Iliamna River. The village owned 80 percent of it, but a couple of dozen lodges were crowding it with sportfishing clients. The corporation limited use to three boats a day and made the lodges bid for that privilege.

"If there's anyone else up there, they have the right to kick them out," Aaberg said.

After he became president, Aaberg also got the corporation into military maintenance contracting using federal rules that help Native corporations. The corporation is paying its 200 shareholders a dividend of $4.20 per share, plus $1,800 to each elder, and provides burial benefits and scholarships.

Now those payments will be increasing. At a conference he attended, Aaberg learned about conservation easements, which allow landowners to sell the development rights to land while keeping ownership for compatible uses. He worked with Tim Troll, of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, and they put a deal together.

In exchange for agreeing not to develop its three large islands and hundreds of tiny islands in Lake Iliamna — 12,677 acres of land — Pedro Bay will receive $4.4 million. Another village corporation will get about half a million. Troll raised $5 million for the Conservation Fund, which holds mitigation payments companies make when they develop wetlands. The trust still hopes to raise $2 million more in private funding for permanent enforcement of the easement.

The Natives of Pedro Bay will continue to hunt, fish and pick berries on the islands. The money will go into a permanent trust to benefit shareholders. "Both the things are in perpetuity," Aaberg said.

He said the wounds of the Pebble fight have healed. And he has many more ideas.

But litigation over Pebble continues, as does the endangered species process for the seals, four years after the petition was filed. Officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service said a report has been completed and is in review about whether the Iliamna seals meet the standards as a distinct population to be considered for protection, a complex technical question that comes before looking at whether they actually need protection.

Peter Boveng of the agency's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle said the Iliamna seals are very closely related to one another, suggesting they are isolated and haven't mixed with other seals. But they aren't a different species. Their uniqueness probably comes from living in the lake's freshwater with rich food supplies, not the evolution of physical differences.

"They appear to be a little splinter group of harbor seals from Bristol Bay," he said.

The isolation and uniqueness of the seals could still allow an endangered listing. But that seems irrelevant now. Pedro Bay and its seals seem to be in good hands.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's 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. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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