Every year for the past decade the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay seems to die, only to rise again from its still-warm ashes. Despite lawsuits, a rigorous permitting process, and continued opposition by local organizations, Sam Snyder, campaign manager for the Wild Salmon Center, says the mega-mine isn’t just hanging on, it’s gaining momentum. “Pebble just submitted a new plan that extends the lifetime of the mine from 25 to 75 years while tripling its size. It’s on a fast-track.” On November 6, Alaskans have the opportunity to definitively vote on not only Pebble’s future, but the future of all projects that would impact anadromous fish habitat.
At its core, Alaska’s Ballot Measure 1 aims to update the six-decade-old state statute governing development on and near salmon-bearing waters. According to Stand for Salmon, the main group behind this campaign, their aim is “to ensure that Alaska remains the nation’s salmon state for generations to come.” Snyder says that a similar proposal has stalled in the legislature for several years, as have previous attempts. “It’s time to take our own matters into our hands as Alaskans,” he says. “This is our best chance to get it right. In the Pacific Northwest, states are spending millions to restore habitat and remove dams. In Alaska, we’re lucky. We don’t have to do that.”
Guide Kate Crump has seen firsthand the juxtaposition of these two areas of the country. For the past decade she has split her guide season between the Oregon Coast and Bristol Bay.
It’s hard to catch ’em when they ain’t here,”
“Two weeks before heading to Alaska, I was hunting spring chinook on the Oregon Coast. I motored by an old timer one morning and asked about the fishing. “It’s hard to catch ’em when they ain’t here,” he replied. Here, on AK’s Nushagak and Naknek Rivers, where salmon actually exist, daily hook-ups with chinook happen repeatedly. Oregon and Washington used to have some of the greatest salmon runs in the world. In less than a hundred years, they’ve been reduced to a fraction of their original size. Alaska still has the pristine habitat, so it’s no surprise the salmon runs are healthy and sustainable.”
Snyder reiterated Crump’s sentiments. “Sportsmen dream about going to places like Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and South East Alaska. If you care about these places, take action now so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the Lower 48.”
As with any political campaign, there is fierce opposition to Ballot Measure 1, which is headed by an organization calling itself “Stand for Alaska.” Despite the grassroots name, the top donors pushing for a “No” vote are not citizens of the Last Frontier but extractive corporations that stand to lose millions in revenue if the measure passes. Pebble, Kinross Fort Knox Mining, Donlin Gold, CononcoPhilips, BP Exploration Alaska, and Sumitomo Metal Mining have each donated over $1 million to the Stand for Alaska campaign. On the other side, the top three donors to Stand for Salmon are Alaska Conservation Foundation, The Alaska Center, and Cook Inletkeeper—all nonprofits based in Alaska.
While both groups claim support from a wide variety of Alaskan companies, there is a stark dichotomy between the two sides. By and large, organizations that depend on fish (guiding operations, lodges, commercial fishing vessels) side with Stand for Salmon, while their land-based counterparts (construction firms, mining companies, and oddly enough, a Vape Shop) are with Stand for Alaska. But if you scroll down the list of groups opposing Ballot Measure 1, you’ll also encounter some fishing lodges. Bret Wangrud owns and operates one of these lodges on the Kenai Peninsula, and explained his rationale for voting no. “I’ve got five acres up here. Two acres are developed, and I want to put a lodge on the other three. [If proposition 1 passes] it would take six years to get permission to do that. There’s no way I’m going to vote for that. We have enough [regulations] here in the Kenai bureau to keep us honest and keep this area pristine.”
But Wangrud’s opposition to this ballot measure goes beyond local and state politics. “I’m voting against it for the same reasons that I voted for Donald Trump; he’s getting rid of regulations.” Assuming that other Alaskans feel the same way, while simultaneously keeping in mind that Trump won 52.9% of the popular vote in Alaska’s 2016 presidential election, this ballot measure and the salmon it aims to protect have an upstream battle ahead of them.