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Commentary

Iditarod 'gag rule' muzzles mushers on Donlin mine, but not Alaskans

  • Author: Monica Zappa
  • Updated: July 5, 2016
  • Published May 31, 2016

Effective this year, an Iditarod musher is not allowed to say or do anything that might be considered disparaging to the race or its sponsors from the time they sign up until 45 days after the last musher has crossed the finish line. It's called Rule 53. It leaves a 42-day window of time for an environmental activist/musher such as myself to exercise the freedom to speak out against what would be the largest open-pit mine in remote Alaska. Today, May 31, we are 26 days out from Iditarod 2017 sign-up opening, with major incentives (i.e. a chance to win back the $3000 entry fee) to sign up on day one. Today is also the deadline for the public comment period to Army Corps of Engineers regarding the Donlin Gold Mine. Time is critical.

I moved to Alaska in 2010 looking for a simple lifestyle, and found it through dog mushing, commercial fishing and rustic living. Alaska is one of the few places on earth where such a life exists, and soon I realized this way of life is being threatened by foreign mining giants. The proposed impacts of the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay blew me away and in 2011 my partner Tim Osmar and I launched our 'Mushing to Save Bristol Bay' campaign. This was five years before Rule 53 and three years before Donlin was an Iditarod sponsor. Over the years, I have worked with local and national groups to raise awareness about the threat to the world`s largest salmon spawn through my mushing endeavors. I have carried the "Clean Water, Wild Salmon, No Pebble Mine" banner to Nome three times now and am so proud to be a part of the statewide movement that has, so far, kept Pebble out of the Bay.

Before Rule 53 (aka the "Gag Rule") existed, I explored launching a mushing campaign to raise awareness about Donlin, like we did with Pebble. To my surprise, I found very little support. Likely because the Kuskokwim region doesn't have the world's largest commercial fishing fleet depending on it, or tourists who spend thousands to fish at world-class lodges.

Either way, few of my activist friends wanted to go there, but I believe all Alaska waterways and wild salmon deserve equal protection. Even with all the positive strides we have made against Pebble, I feel compelled to take the message of Clean Water, Wild Salmon beyond Bristol Bay. For me, it would be irresponsible not to. I refuse to be a "bandwagon activist" who is on board because 80 percent of Alaskans feel the same way. I want to be an activist for the environment for the root reasons; for the protection of land, lives, and ecosystems. For many of these beings, life is not possible another way, including some Alaska Native people who consider subsistence life a priceless source of real value in their lives.

While the Iditarod Trail Committee tries to keep its main funder happy, I have been putting a great deal of thought into the Donlin Gold project in an attempt to uphold my values. It's a tricky position I find myself in, a delicate balance to stay within the rules while also being a voice for the fish, whose ecosystems, and those of the people who depend on them, will never be the same should a Donlin, Pebble or similar be allowed to operate in Alaska.

In the Kuskokwim region, Donlin and their Canadian parent companies; Nova Gold and Barrick Gold, have been attempting to ingratiate themselves with the communities the mine would impact by supporting local events such as basketball tournaments and garbage pickups, creating local employment for preliminary mine work, and offering scholarships to Native youth. They also sponsor important races in Alaska such as the Iditarod, Kuskokwim 300 and Iron Dog. Their funds are accepted with smiles and handshakes, but Donlin wants something from Alaskans in return. They want Alaskans to support their giant foreign-owned gold mine that would threaten the Kusko region with mercury and arsenic contamination, contain the state's largest tailings dam, and require Alaskans to take responsibility for the perpetual treatment of treating toxic leftovers remaining after the mine is closed. And they are winning many over.

On my 2014 rookie Iditarod run, I met a couple fat-biking the trail who have been working to raise awareness about the Donlin project. Ironically, we ran into each other in the very same section of trail Donlin plans to bury a gas pipeline, which would forever alter the historic status of the trail. Turns out they were the filmmakers of "Where the Heck is Donlin?" a film that traces their 850-mile journey by snowbike and packrafts through the heart of the Kusko region. To learn more about their project and the mine, visit groundtruthtrekking.org. Their story reveals the plight of residents in the region who don't want to see their subsistence ways threatened, but fear to speak out.

I certainly can relate to their predicament. According to the new Iditarod rule, by speaking out and breaking the rule, I risk forfeiting my entry fee and being kicked out of the race indefinitely. I found this out in January, before I knew the rule existed. I received a call that I had been in violation of Rule 53 for sharing two ADN articles published in February (a news report titled "Golden opportunity or Toxic Risk? Southwest Alaska debates Donlin Mine" and a commentary by Dan Seavey "Proposed pipeline to Donlin would ruin a piece of history") on my social media pages, and including my opinion in the comments. I was warned that if I wanted to participate in Iditarod, I had better keep my opinion to myself.

I believe that the mushers should not be forced to jump on the "yay Donlin Mine train." Donlin Gold is coercing Alaskans by paying Iditarod over a million dollars in exchange for muzzling the mushers, and winning the approval of Alaskans.

Today, May 31, the most important thing Alaskans can do is submit public comments on the Donlin Gold Environmental Impact Statement to the Army Corps of Engineers at donlingoldeis.com. June 1 will be too late, now is the time to take a stand for Alaska's valuable resources that, with the right protection, can sustain lives for hundreds of years to come.

Monica Zappa is a musher who fishes commercially and lives in Ninilchik's Caribou Hills area. She finished her first Iditarod in 2014.

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@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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