OPINION: The weakening pulse of Alaska’s rivers

The salmon declines in Alaska’s arctic, the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers are not just a flashing warning sign of ecological distress; they are a direct threat to the cultural and traditional sustenance of Alaska Native communities. The testimony we heard at the Nov. 10 United States Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing painted a dire picture — one where the heartbeat of an entire culture is fading. With ocean trawling, bycatch and climate change, the reasons are many, but the silent threat of the proposed Donlin Gold mine looms large for our people.

This is why I took this opportunity to hand deliver a heartfelt letter to Sen. Lisa Murkowski during this hearing. The letter was born out of the collective worry for human safety and fear of irreversible impacts to our rivers ecosystems posed by the development of the Donlin Gold mine.

Sen. Murkowski has been a vocal advocate for the integrity of Alaska’s rivers. Last year during the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention, she spoke about safeguarding our rivers. This resonated deeply with us, yet the Kuskokwim and other Alaska rivers still await unwavering protection. Tribes in rural communities are actively fighting Donlin’s rubber-stamped permits, which utilized inadequate scientific analysis and neglected to hold legal tribal consultation. Similar permits were upheld and approved again and again by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska Department of Natural Resources — which goes to show our state’s waters are not safeguarded.

Donlin Gold poses a threat worse than just another boom-and-bust cycle of economic development. It is the creation of potential catastrophe, posing risks we cannot afford to ignore. The risks range from increased barge traffic escalating erosion, which is already swallowing our villages and forcing relocation; tailings dam failures that would permanently contaminate the entire regions food and water supply; to fluxes of transient workers and the creation of man camps that would exacerbate the already critical issue of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples and violence against women.

The handing over of this letter at the hearing was more than ceremonial; it was a transfer of responsibility, a call to action.

The communities along Alaska’s rivers are not asking for handouts; we demand action. A supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) that comprehensively assesses the potential damages of the Donlin Gold mine is the least that can be done.

As we navigate the treacherous currents of policy and profit, let us remember that the true measure of our society lies in how we honor and preserve the ways of life that have sustained this land long before.


Our state is at a crossroads. The decisions we make today will echo through generations. Sen. Murkowski’s leadership and commitment to Alaska are known, but it’s time for that leadership to manifest decisive actions that protect the heart of our state — our rivers, our people and our future.

Sophie Swope is the executive director of the Mother Kuskokwim Tribal Coalition and a Council member of the Orutsararmiut Traditional Native Council while also serving as the Vice-Mayor for the City of Bethel. She is a young Alaskan who finds passion in navigating the complexities of governing tribal sovereignty and the for-profit indoctrination of Alaska lands.

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