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Alaskans must stand firm to protect salmon habitat

Posted: March 1, 2012 - 9:58pm

Alaska stands at an important threshold, and the decisions we make in the coming months will determine the fate of wild Alaska salmon for generations to come.

Some folks from Texas want to strip-mine the Chuitna River watershed on the west side of Cook Inlet so they can send coal to China. To get to the coal, they want to destroy 11 miles of Middle Creek, a beautiful stream that is home to several species of wild Alaskan salmon. This would be the first time in our great state’s history we would allow mining directly through a wild salmon stream. If our governor and the state agencies allow this project to proceed, it will set a horrendous precedent that will jeopardize wild Alaska salmon forever.

Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources is moving ahead with a permitting process for this monstrous misuse of the land. That an Alaska agency would consider such a proposal is an insult to Alaskans and to the land. In my 61 years being involved with Alaska’s fish and game resources, the only other comparable, seriously-proposed rape of Alaska’s land I can remember was when Gov. Ernest Gruening wanted to dam the Yukon River.

The federal government almost destroyed Alaska’s salmon fishery. Since statehood in 1959, Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game has rebuilt our salmon runs to equal to or even better than the greatest runs of the earliest years. But now, politics and money have crept in, and sound science is no longer driving our agency decision making.

The future of our salmon depends upon the health of our salmon streams. Since territorial days we have prohibited dams that could keep salmon from spawning grounds. To protect spawning grounds and prevent silting, one cannot legally drive a tractor or all-terrain vehicle across an Alaska salmon stream. We require logging projects to protect riparian habitat for fish. We say no to fish stream pollution of any kind.

At statehood, Alaska’s salmon managers — I was one — had mostly pristine rivers to manage. The Texans presume they can replace the 11 miles of Middle Creek they plan to destroy. That is impossible; any Alaskan knows that. If they could build new salmon streams, they could make a heck of a lot more money doing that then exporting coal. Only God could create a wild Alaska salmon stream and all its fixings, and it might even take Him a few centuries.

Equally important, it’s impossible to set a dollar value on the loss of salmon from Middle Creek. The reason is simple: salmon are an eternally renewable resource. What would be the value of salmon from Middle Creek over the next 10,000 years? Compare that with 25 years of income from coal shipped to China, most of which would fill the pockets of Outside investors.

Gov. Sean Parnell has promised on numerous occasions he would “never trade one resource for another.” Yet he rejected a petition from local hunters and fishermen asking the state to remove salmon streams from the proposed mining area. I’m all for mining, it’s vitally important to our state — just not through our salmon streams. The governor wants us to believe the permitting system can somehow magically mitigate away the devastating effects of coal strip mining on wild salmon streams. But anyone who’s lived with salmon knows that’s untrue.

Alaska is the last stronghold for wild salmon. The once-magnificent runs in Oregon, Washington and Maine have fallen to the very same shortsighted decisions we’re faced today with the Chuitna coal strip mine. If we set state policy by allowing mining through salmon streams at Chuitna, it won’t be long before our kids and grandkids are asking: why didn’t you learn from the mistakes they made in the Lower 48?

• In 1950, Rearden organized the wildlife department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and taught as head of that department for four years. He has been an area biologist for commercial fisheries for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game in Cook Inlet, served on the old Board of Fish and Game and later on the Board of Game and was a member of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. He was outdoors editor of Alaska Magazine for 20 years and has written more than 500 magazine stories and 27 books on Alaska subjects.

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