It was that Northland poet, Robert Service, who wrote: "There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold." The latter-day moilers in this case are two private corporations, namely Donlin Gold LLC and Calista Corp. Their modern moilings will result in complete, irreversible destruction of the scenic and cultural nature of a 58-mile stretch of our Iditarod National Historic Trail. Included is the spectacular Rainy Pass segment.
The prize? Thirty-three million ounces of gold located on Calista land 10 miles north of Crooked Creek in northcentral Alaska. The deposit is to be mined by open-pit methods over an estimated 27-year period.
The problem? It will not be by pick and shovel as in days gone by. Its doability is contingent on a huge, dependable energy supply, one capable of producing 157 megawatts of electricity to drive a mega processing plant with an appetite for 59,000 tons of ore per day.
The solution deemed best? Lay a 14-inch natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet through the Alaska Range some 312 miles to the Donlin mine site. And here's the rub. The Iditarod National Historic Trail would take a thrashing for 58 of those miles since the pipeline would be colocated on, intersect with or parallel to the Iditarod Trail. Pipeline impact begins at Old Skwentna and continues through Rainy Pass, where it would leave the trail at Three Mile Creek.
A visit to the Donlin website (donlingold.com) provides a quick, colorful overview of the massive project. We learn Calista Corp. owns the gold deposit and will reap benefits as shareholders (royalties) and as workforce via preferential hire and other goodies. Donlin sets the employment level at 3,000 during a four-year construction phase and 1,400 to keep production wheels turning. Regarding the gas pipeline, we are told: "Temporary roads and stream or river crossings would be necessary during pipeline construction." And. "Temporary roads and infrastructure would be reclaimed once construction of the pipeline is complete. Above-ground safety check valves would be located every 20 miles or more along the pipeline." Such a statement! Does it not conjure a vision of low impact, all is well, don't worry?
Visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' website (donlingoldeis.com) for an eye-opener. A far more alarming image surfaces with a study of Donlin's development plan for the gasline. More like a nightmare really for those who value the trail for what it is -- a scenic jewel, steeped in our cultural history.
Are you ready for this? First comes the clearing of a 150-foot swath of trees wherever they dared to grow along the entire 58 miles. Atop that clearing, a 65-foot-wide road bed, 50 feet of which will be kept brushed for the entire life of the pipeline. Thirty-one of the 58 miles of pipe would be located a half-mile or less from the trail alignment while 7.3 miles of contemporary trail would be completely obliterated. Now add two 5,000-foot airfields. Getting the picture? Not much there in the way of historic preservation. But, there is more.
Donlin's plan also calls for two construction camp sites, six mobile sledge mounted crew camps, three 41-acre gravel pits, eight pipe storage yards and exchange of the historic (and storied) Happy River Steps for a 24-foot-wide construction road of which 15 in all are planned to intersect the historic trail. When all is said and done, a primitive road paralleling, crossing and/or occupying the Iditarod Trail from Skwentna to Puntilla Lake would remain.
There should be little worry of getting lost on the Donlin Iditarod Trail. Even the most inept should be able to follow the above-ground inspection pipes and mile markers placed every mile along its course. The more adroit adventurer may wish rather to be guided by the three block valve yards spaced along the way.
So there you have it, folks. Two private interests with a proposal that, if allowed, would despoil a public treasure in their moiling for private gain. Since the Iditarod is a national historic -- I reiterate, a national historic trail -- one has to wonder how such a destructive idea was even entertained by the state of Alaska. How has it progressed to a stage where only a loud and determined public outcry will squelch it? Make no mistake, that's what needs to be done -- very loud and very soon.
April 30, 2016, is the deadline for comments on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' extremely important draft Donlin Gold Project Environmental Impact Statement. We all need to study the issue, attend the scheduled public meetings and let our wishes be known. Written comments can be submitted:
1) At public meetings
2) By email to POA.email@example.com
3) Fax to (907) 753-5567
4) Mailed to: Keith Gordon Project Manager, U.S. Corps of Engineers, P.O. Box 6898, JBER, AK 99506-0898.
Finally, I state that I am not anti-mining. I will support alternative means of fueling the Donlin mine -- and there are alternatives.
However, I was among those who advocated and saw to the Iditarod Trail's historic designation and acceptance into the national trails system. In one form or another, I have devoted some 35 years to the Iditarod National Historic Trail -- 35 years with the assistance of many other dedicated visionaries spent in the hope that this awe-inspiring piece of public wealth may find a place in the hearts of the present generation of Alaskans and in those yet unborn.
Now, indeed, is the time for all good Alaskans to come to the defense of their Iditarod National Historic Trail. The Iditarod Trail, that beautiful, historic, magical route that connects us to our past must not be bulldozed into an industrial corridor for private gain.
Dan Seavey finished the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973 and has been a longtime volunteer and advocate for the preservation of the trail to Nome. He lives in Seward.
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