The Taku River teems with fish and is worth millions each year to local fishermen, but state biologists had to jump through legal hoops to deem it an "important habitat."
Those two little words change how Department of Natural Resources officials must look at a mine company's proposal to haul a hoverbarge down the Taku year-round using amphibious vehicles.
"It's the difference between a layman's understanding of what important habitat is, and the legal, technical term," said Randy Bates, director of the Alaska Coastal Management Program in DNR, who helped write the relevant statutes.
Redfern Resources Ltd., owned by Vancouver-based Redcorp Ventures Ltd., plans to reopen the Tulsequah Chief multi-metal mine, near the confluence of the Tulsequah and Taku rivers, 40 miles northeast of Juneau. The mine is only accessible by air and water, and the hoverbarge plan will allow the company to operate year-round.
The Taku's fish - all five species of salmon, plus eulachon, trout and Dolly Varden char - are at the center of this controversial proposal.
Redfern says its plan will minimally impact the environment, and pour millions of dollars into the local economy. But sport and commercial fishermen worry Redfern's vehicles will scrape the channel's bottom, which they argue will disrupt spawning or rearing habitats.
ACMP officials have to decide whether the project is consistent with coastal zone policies. Without the "important habitat" designation, they wouldn't examine the project's effect on habitat. Now they'll be required to protect the river's special productivity.
The change affects the public process, too. Now people can comment to ACMP on how they think the project will affect habitat.
The ACMP process is separate from Fish and Game's review of the project for a fish habitat permit, which has similar standards. Bates said that even without the designation, existing laws would protect the Taku.
"It's a huge state. We are trying to manage all the habitats," Bates said. "But there are certain areas that warrant just a little more protection."
Fish and Game biologists asked for the designation, and DNR made the call. Biologists had to show scientific evidence of the Taku's importance, and that the project in question might harm it. The designation will only last for Redfern's current barging proposal.
"I'm not sure that, collectively, we have the same understanding of what this means," said Tom Crafford of DNR, who is coordinating three state agencies' involvement in the Redfern proposal. "This is relatively new for many of us."
ACMP was written during the Murkowski administration, and there have been few tests of the special designation, according to Bates.
That's frustrating to Redfern, which argued against the designation and considers the permit process "unpredictable."
Redfern's application - two permits and the ACMP review - has been on hold since December, when state agencies asked the company for more information. Meanwhile, Redfern's deal with Gold Wheaton Corp. for millions of dollars to develop the mine requires the company to have all its permits by March 1.
Davies said a draft response to the state is ready. But now he won't send it until he knows whether it should address "important habitat" somehow.
"I have not spoken to anybody at the state of Alaska who can give me a straight answer as to what the ramifications of this designation are," he said.
DNR's decision on the designation wasn't subject to public comment, but people commented anyway.
All three Juneau state legislators asked DNR to deem the Taku habitat important.
So did Chris Knight, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Gillnetters, who also contacted Bates.
"We weren't trying to kill a mine project," Knight said. "All we wanted to ensure was that under the ACMP process, that habitat, that the smolts, the fry, the important parts of our commercial fishery were being considered."
• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.