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Celebration of Alaska Wild Salmon Day includes emphatic 'No' to Chuitna coal

  • Author: Janie Standifer
  • Updated: August 10, 2016
  • Published August 10, 2016
Aerial view shows the site of the proposed Chuitna coal project on the west side of Cook Inlet. (BILL ROTH / ADN archive 2006)

Aerial view shows the site of the proposed Chuitna coal project on the west side of Cook Inlet. (BILL ROTH / ADN archive 2006)

I am Janie Standifer and I am 17 years old. I am from Tyonek, a village of 200 people right across the Inlet from Anchorage. We are Dena'ina Athabascan. Since I was little I watched my aunties and uncles cut fish. I helped prepare it for the smokehouse and for dinner. When I grew a little older I started cutting fish and pulling up nets with my family on the Chuitna River. Every summer I help with all this work, and it makes me happy because I know the salmon are returning home and we'll have fresh fish for dinner.

I'm excited to celebrate the first annual Alaska Wild Salmon Day on August 10 with Alaskans across the state, because every day is wild salmon day for me – and now that can be shared. Our salmon should be celebrated, and protected.
Salmon is our tradition. In my Dena'ina Athabaskan culture we believe spiritually that we become eagles and bear and moose and salmon. The salmon feeds all our spiritual animals.

We fish for food to eat throughout the winter. My whole family fishes, our whole village fishes,and my village has fished for generations upon generations. And we want to continue fishing for the next generations to come. We want to stay healthy, and we want to continue our cultural beliefs and way of life that revolves around the salmon.

Salmon – and all of the animals we hunt and fish – are not only a part of my culture and the people who have lived here for thousands of years, we also depend on the fish because it costs so much to get food from Anchorage. Our store doesn't have fresh fruit and vegetables, so we eat what we grow in our garden, to complement the fish from our river.

We truly are one with salmon. I want my kids and grandkids to be able to fish and have the same and more experience I have had growing up in Tyonek. Which is why we can't let the proposed Chuitna Coal Mine happen.

Chuitna Coal Mine would be 15 miles from my home of Tyonek and the neighboring village of Beluga. The mine would be the largest strip coal mine in Alaska. The plan for the mine is to completely remove 14 miles of the streambed of the river, and dig 300 feet deep. In exchange, 8.2 millions of coal a year would be shipped to Asia.

We are one with the salmon. We survive with the fish. We need salmon in our Native culture. We can't let destructive projects like this happen, because we don't know if the salmon will come home after such damage to their river. If this mine is approved, and we lose our salmon run, my village won't have food for winter. If the salmon die off from the coal mine we won't be able to feed the elders or our families.  We won't be able to feed our eagles, the sign of our people.

Pac Rim, the mining company behind the Chuitna mine, proposed a clean-up plan for the river. But after 14 miles of our stream is dug down 300 feet deep, I don't think our salmon would want to return. The river would never be the same, and our healthy fish run would never be the same. Not only is the clean-up not enough, but during the time the mine would be operating our lives would change, and the impact would last for generations in Tyonek.

We need to keep our salmon runs and protect the water they come from. We can't let Chuitna Coal Mine happen. Protecting our salmon means protecting my village's food, our culture, and the tradition we've kept alive for thousands of years. We need to stop the threat to our fish!

In March I traveled to Juneau to tell my legislators about the threat to my village Tyonek. I felt like in Juneau the legislators and teens I traveled with heard me out on my story of fighting the Chuitna Coal Mine. Last month I traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk to our Alaska delegation about the mine as well. As a Native Alaskan teen it is important that I speak up and ask people with the power I don't have to help me fight issues very important to me, my people, and other villages like mine. I tell them how I've been helping stop the Coal Mine campaign since I was 13 years old. Once the coal mine became serious I stepped up to help my village and neighbouring villages save our fish and resources.

On Alaska Wild Salmon Day, take a moment to think about what you can do to protect our salmon. Talking to legislators about the mine helped raise awareness, but ultimately it's not up to them whether the project moves forward. It's up to Alaskans to let their lawmakers, and our governor, know that we want to protect our salmon. Join us today, Aug. 10, at 5:30 p.m. at Cuddy Family Park in Midtown to celebrate Alaska Wild Salmon Day with a salmon barbecue, where I'll be speaking more about Tyonek, our fish, and my home.

Janie Standifer of Tyonek, on the west side of Cook Inlet,  is a youth organizer with Alaska Youth for Environmental Action.

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@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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