The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is assessing the risk that large-scale mining presents to wild salmon in Bristol Bay.
Flightseeing across the vast expanse of tundra, fishing in a stream brimming with salmon, or hiking the low hills of the region, it might be hard, at first glance, to see why conservation is immediately needed in such an intact landscape.
Local people, commercial fishermen, sportsfishermen, biologists and others hope Alaska's Bristol Bay can remain this way. They believe one of the greatest threats to the region's fish and wildlife is the threat of large-scale mining and the slow creep of other development. When this development is poorly planned, critical habitat can easily be disturbed or degraded. Moreover, increases in the number of lodges, gravel pits, roads and small airstrips may have a cumulative impact on fish and wildlife over time.
Such development is gaining a foothold on private lands in southwest Alaska. Much of the private land in the region is held by Native people and currently managed in a way that is consistent with habitat values. Potentially, however, some of this land may be purchased and developed incompatibly by outside interests, particularly as local people face financial hardship and poor returns on commercial fishing. When this happens, there is often a double loss: land goes out of Native ownership and important habitat is lost. Such a process is of special concern in the riparian corridors along the watershed's streams and rivers--this habitat is essential to conserve the region's extraordinary wild salmon runs.
Development of natural resources on both on public and private lands is another issue in the region. Currently, private developers are exploring the potential for large, open-pit gold, copper, and molybdenum mining in the headwaters of the Nushagak River and Kvichak Rivers. The Pebble deposit has potential to support one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, and has set off a rush on claims in the mining district. In the lower watershed and in the bay, there is renewed interest in oil and gas development.
These development projects not only bring direct threats such as that of dam failure and leaching and fuel spills, but they also increase human populations and infrastructure, which may contribute to the cumulative impacts of development on fish and wildlife in the region. The proposed Pebble mine, for example, may involve construction of a road to lower Cook Inlet. Such a road would likely increase recreational and development pressure, and would involve many dozens of fish stream crossings, with the potential to disrupt water flow and quantity and fish passage.