By BARBARA BELKNAP
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At her inauguration, Gov. Sarah Palin said, "We'll engage in safe development, and we'll show the way for the rest of the world - that we can be good stewards of God's green Earth. We haven't always done that."
Those are very wise words. Stopping the Pebble Mine right now because the risks to God's green Earth far outweigh any benefits to Alaskans would be an excellent way to put that pledge into action.
Alaska is a brand. The word "Alaska" conjures up an image in people's minds. That perception is our brand. The people of Alaska own the brand and the state government protects the brand through regulation and oversight. Millions of state, federal and private industry dollars have been invested in building the Alaska brand and tens of thousands of jobs in the salmon and tourism industries depend on its integrity.
When a brand is tarnished, it can take years to recover. Think New Orleans. Sometimes, a brand is ruined forever. Think of the possibilities. I worked at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute from 1989 to 2002. When I started at the institute in October 1989, the staff was 100 percent engaged in a battle to save the Alaska seafood brand from the damage done by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The office was like a war room. Bulletins went out every day to the press and to the food industry to keep the facts in front of them. It is fair to say that the institute helped save the Alaska seafood brand from the oil spill.
The institute's marketing materials use words such as pure, natural, sustainable, wild, ecosystem, and statements such as, "In Alaska, the fish come first." This means something to the growing number of seafood buyers, chefs and consumers around the world who want to buy a natural salmon from a sustainable resource.
Alaska salmon is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (msc.org) as a sustainable fishery. The council's label adds to the value of the Alaska salmon brand. Recertification could be at risk if Northern Dynasty is allowed to operate in such a sensitive salmon spawning region. The resulting negative publicity could unravel years of hard work to get Alaska salmon out of the commodity market and into a special niche market that brings higher prices.
For Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver, British Columbia, and its Pebble Mine complex, the bottom line is the bottom line. They are not part of the owner state. They are renters.
The Pebble Mine West would have five enormous dams made of earth and rock right in the middle of a major earthquake zone. They would hold toxic waste from the mining operation for eternity. Two of them would be the largest dams on earth.
Pebble Mine East would have an underground mine filled with tailings and toxic waste that could find its way into the groundwater because it has happened in other parts of the world.
We know from our past experiences with the mining and oil industries that there can be catastrophic failures of equipment or judgment. When that happens, Northern Dynasty will lose money and probably be tied up in a lawsuit. That is its risk. But Alaska is risking the land, the water, the salmon - the entire web of life in that region. Native Alaskans stand to lose even more on a deeply spiritual level. Of less importance, but critical nonetheless, is that the perception of Alaska as a wild and pristine place will be damaged, perhaps forever.
The Pebble Mine will create jobs, but the life of the mine is finite and the primary product will be gold. Alaska is not a Third World country that needs to place an entire ecosystem and its image at risk for jewelry. Jobs are important and needed, but returning to Palin's speech and her thoughts about unemployment: "We must think outside of the box to make true progress."
Let's do just that and still be good stewards of God's green Earth.
Barbara Belknap was the executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute from 1997 to 2002. She is a resident of Juneau.
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