Permanent Protections for Bristol Bay Would Be a Win for Tribes, Climate Action, and the Alaska Economy
Bristol Bay, in Southwest Alaska, is home to the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. The area’s healthy ecosystem supports more than $2 billion in annual economic activity, sustains the traditional lifestyles of more than two dozen tribes, and is key for the region’s carbon storage and resilience. But since 2007, a foreign mining company—Pebble Limited Partnership—has been working to establish an open-pit mine that threatens to destroy hundreds of miles of salmon streams and thousands of acres of wetlands in Bristol Bay, putting jobs, tribes, and the climate at risk.
The time is now for the Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to permanently protect Bristol Bay from the threat of mining using its authority under the Clean Water Act. Permanent protections would be a win for tribal-led conservation, Alaska’s economy, climate resiliency, durable jobs, and one of the world’s last pristine wild places.
The current state of play
Discovered in 1988, the Pebble deposit contains gold, molybdenum, and copper. A Canadian company secured the rights to the deposit in 2001; then, in 2007, Pebble Limited Partnership—the current permit applicant—formed. After nearly two decades of tumultuous back-and-forth over permitting and protections, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a key federal permit for the Pebble Mine in late November 2020, stating that the plan did not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines. This was only a temporary reprieve, however, as Pebble Limited Partnership appealed the ruling in January 2021.
True protections for the region are desperately needed. For this reason, the people of Bristol Bay have called for the EPA to issue a permanent veto of Pebble Mine through the Clean Water Act’s Section 404(c). A regulatory action under 404(c) allows the EPA to withdraw a site or region from consideration as a disposal site for an activity such as mining if the discharge will have “unacceptable adverse effects” on fisheries or wildlife. The Obama administration took this step in 2014 after a comprehensive watershed assessment for the Bristol Bay region found that its unique wildlife, habitat, and economic characteristics would be harmed by large-scale mining.
However, Pebble Limited Partnership sued, tying up the EPA’s 404(c) action in the courts. The Trump administration then settled and withdrew that action in 2019, allowing the mine’s permit application process to continue to today.
Timeline of past actions
1988: Pebble West is discovered.
2001: Northern Dynasty Minerals acquires rights to Pebble.
2005: Pebble East is discovered.
2007: Pebble Limited Partnership, the current permit applicant and a wholly owned subsidiary of Northern Dynasty, is formed.
2012: The Obama administration starts the 404(c) process.
2013: Then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visits Pebble Mine site.
2014: The EPA invokes the Clean Water Act, 404(c), to block the mine.
2014: Pebble sues the government over the 404(c) withdrawal.
2017: The Trump administration’s EPA settles the lawsuit and allows Pebble to apply for mining permits.
2020: In a surprise move, the Trump administration’s Army Corps denies the mine a key permit—a positive development but not a permanent solution.
2021: Pebble appeals the Army Corps decision; the Army Corps announces that the review will take at least a year.
A healthy ecosystem is essential to the well-being of Alaska Natives in Bristol Bay. The Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq people have lived in the region for thousands of years, and their cultures are tied to the land, the watershed, and the fish and wildlife that live in it. Bristol Bay is the ancestral homeland for 31 federally recognized tribes, who depend on the region’s fisheries for their economic, physical, and cultural sustenance. Salmon is a critical food source in Alaska, and Bristol Bay provides nearly 30 percent of the subsistence harvest in the state.
The tribes are deeply concerned about the threat that mining poses to their way of life. In 2010, six tribes petitioned the EPA to provide permanent protections for the region. Today, the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which advocates for EPA protections, consists of 15 federally recognized tribes and represents more than 80 percent of the region’s population. In addition, these tribes have been joined by commercial fishermen, sportsmen, conservation advocates, and scientists to form a strong coalition of people and groups that depend on a healthy, abundant Bristol Bay fishery that is free from mining destruction.
President Joe Biden has made an overarching commitment to improve consultation and coordination with tribes and to provide them with a “greater role in the care and management of public lands that are of cultural significance to Tribal Nations.” The protection of Bristol Bay provides a clear opportunity to honor tribal sovereignty and support tribes in executing their conservation vision.
The world’s greatest salmon fishery
The pristine streams and rivers of Bristol Bay support all five species of North American Pacific salmon: sockeye, coho, chinook, chum, and pink. But they are most famous for sockeye: About half of the entire world’s sockeye salmon come from Bristol Bay. Those fish, in turn, support 15,000 jobs and a fishery valued at $2.2 billion. In 2018 and 2019, Bristol Bay comprised more than 50 percent of Alaska’s entire salmon value.
Bristol Bay’s spectacular wildlife also supports a vast recreation and tourism industry. Anglers from around the world travel to experience a once-in-lifetime opportunity to catch the region’s chinook salmon, trophy wild rainbow trout, arctic char, and other fish and game. A 2007 study found that sport fishing in Alaska supports more than 15,800 jobs and has an estimated economic impact of $1.4 billion annually. And in Bristol Bay specifically, recreation and tourism spending supports 846 full- and part-time jobs, $27 million in wages, and $90 million in state tax and license revenue.
Climate and conservation benefits
With the Arctic warming about twice as fast as the rest of the world, Alaska’s ecosystems and salmon are vulnerable to climate change. However, Bristol Bay salmon have remained abundant. The diversity in river systems, habitats, and salmon species in Bristol Bay has been critical for the area’s resilience against catastrophic declines in salmon abundance. Healthy ecosystems such as Bristol Bay are and will continue to be important refuges in a warmer world. A mine in the area, however, would threaten the very characteristics that make the bay so resilient.
The Biden administration’s America the Beautiful campaign, and its goal of conserving 30 percent of lands, waters, and ocean by 2030, calls for ambition in addressing the climate and conservation crises. The report also includes principles that prioritize tribal sovereignty, job creation, and locally led conservation, all of which apply to a fully protected Bristol Bay.
The Biden administration has committed to honoring tribal sovereignty, taking strong climate action, and investing in America’s economic recovery. Protecting Bristol Bay invests in all three of these key goals. The EPA must act now to permanently protect this unique and irreplaceable region for the sake of the people—and indeed, on behalf of all Americans—who depend on it.
Jenny Rowland-Shea is the deputy director for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress. Sally Hardin is the director for the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center. Miriam Goldstein is the managing director for Energy and Environment Policy and the director for Ocean Policy at the Center.
The authors would like to thank Steve Bonitatibus for his contributions to this column.
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