It’s like the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, only bigger.

by Travis Rummel

When I ask folks in the lower forty-eight if they’ve heard of the Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the answer is invariably ”no.” This, despite the fact that a Canadian company, Northern Dynasty is proposing to develop the largest open-pit mine in North America. The location is the headwaters of the greatest two sockeye-producing rivers in the world. These headwaters provide spawning habitat for millions and millions of salmon and house somewhere around 300 billion dollars in gold, copper and molybdenum.

It is okay if you haven’t heard of it, neither had my filmmaking cohort Ben Knight, until I approached him about making a film on the topic. It didn't take us long to realize that this project would be far more than a fishing film.

We were fortunate enough to spend the majority of our summer in the Bristol Bay region. We followed the sockeye, king and chum salmon from tidal water to their spawning grounds and tried to get our heads wrapped around the whole Pebble Mine issue as we spent time with commercial, subsistence and sport fishermen.

Based on our experience in Alaska, this is truly one of the biggest conservation challenges of the day and needs all of the help and attention the conservation community can muster. The mining companies (Northern Dynasty and recent UK partner Anglo American) have very deep pockets, and the billions of dollars worth of minerals will continue to tempt, unless the area can be entirely protected and made off-limits to mining.

About the Author

After coming of age within the confines of suburban New Jersey, Travis Rummel made his way to Colorado and hasn't looked back. He met his film-making partner, Ben Knight in Telluride back in 2002 and together they quickly founded Felt Soul Media with the completion of their first film, “The Hatch.” They are trying to save the world one fly-fishing film at a time.

The Pebble Mine is a relatively complex issue, but it can be distilled down to the choice between a renewable-resource in the salmon fishery versus the one-time gain of extracting the copper/gold/molybdenum with the mine (and the cost of cleaning up the resulting environmental mess). There is very little empirical evidence suggesting the two can co-exist in the long term.

The proposed Pebble Mine site could not be in a worse location. The immediate hydrology is insanely complex; it is a tundra wetland with ponds, lakes, rivulets and creeks everywhere. The two creeks – the Koktuli and Upper Talarik – that drain the site are the headwaters of the Nushagak and the Kvichak rivers. These are the two highest producing sockeye salmon rivers in the world. One year the Kvichak alone supported sixty million sockeye! The Nushagak supports one of the largest runs of king salmon left on the planet.

Also threatened are the Mulchatna caribou herd, the largest run of sockeye salmon on Earth, a huge run of Chinook salmon, dense populations of brown bear (more bears than people) and many indigenous cultures. The mine site is also extremely close to Lake Iliamna, the largest body of fresh water in Alaska. The water in Lake Iliamna is pure enough to drink straight from the lake, and acts as a source of drinking water for the majority of those who live near it. The lake also supports what could be the only population of freshwater seals in the world (Russia’s Lake Baikal had a population of fresh water seals, now rumored to be extinct).