Reversing course on Bristol Bay protections a massive betrayal of public trust

During the State of Alaska Frank Murkowski administration (2002-2006), the state government engaged in a process described as the 2005 Bristol Bay Area Plan in order to determine the designation of state lands, among them the lands that include the Bristol Bay river headwaters. While these lands are obviously critical habitat for fisheries, Gov. Murkowski and his commissioner of natural resources made sure that the chosen designation made these lands open to future development. This ideologically driven decision was widely seen as a misuse of power and the Nondalton Tribal Council, leading a coalition of five village councils, Trout Unlimited and the Alaska Fisherman’s Marketing Association, sued to reverse the decision and initiate a new process of determination (State Dept. of Natural Resources v. Nondalton Tribal Council, 1/20/2012, sp-6638).


In this, they were not successful, as the Alaska Supreme Court sided with administrative power on what amounts to a technicality and against the local area people. This event set the stage for the Pebble controversy, because if the Bristol Bay uplands had the habitat designation they should have had, mining would never have been on the table in the first place.

Now for some years, a number of companies with varying degrees of financial backing have been doing small-bore drill analysis of the mineral deposits and outlining an open pit and deep rock mining proposal, primarily for copper in the Bristol Bay uplands. Seeking to defend their lands, the last remaining world-class sockeye fishery, and their way of life, a group of villages asked the EPA to do an analysis of the situation and the land and waters, with a view to obtaining a designation that would do what the Murkowski administration should have done in the first place, namely to protect critical habitat.

Many voices joined in the discussion, or the confrontation if you want, and as these voices became more frustrated by corporate legal tactics and conservative political maneuvering, they were told to be patient and trust the process. “There is a process, just hang in and trust the process.” This advice came from the Congressional offices of both Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski (same name, definitely related). After tens of thousands of hours of travel, testimony, public meetings and following the process, the EPA came to a determination under the Clean Water Act and proposed a designation and rule regarding dumping in the Bristol Bay river systems that would prevent the Pebble Mine and other mines from being developed. So hats off to you Senators Murkowski, Begich, and now Sullivan, the process you impressed upon us worked and we got protection for the Bay.

Except for one little remaining maneuver. A new federal administration and a new EPA commissioner have informed us that we just need to start over. The old process: all the testimony, all the statements, all the science, all the meetings from Seattle to Bristol Bay — it turns out it was all smoke and mirrors. We were told to trust something that ghosted through our fingers and became nothing. We can trust the new process though, right?

To this new public process I submit all the testimony, all the science, all the petitions, all the process documentation that went before, amounting to some 10 years or work by civic groups, by government agencies, and by scientists of different stripes. Based on the substance of this process, the EPA came to a decision and that is the only acceptable decision that can be concluded now. Any other decision than the one already reached makes liars out of the congressional delegation who knew full well that the “process” could and would be manipulated to achieve a pro-industrial development agenda.

If the EPA does not verify and certify the decision it already reached, it constitutes a massive betrayal of the people and the process we were told to trust. Any other decision is incontestable evidence that the current administration is in fact not a government, but is instead the creature of a self-serving and ideologically driven private agenda, determined to manipulate the mechanics of government for its own ends. Any other decision than the one made to defend the Bristol Bay uplands under the Clean Water Act is a de facto declaration of war on the people and their sacred lands and waters.

• Eric Forrer is a Juneau resident.


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