ANCHORAGE - Trout Unlimited and nearly 300 other groups have asked the Interior secretary to undo the Bush administration's "wrong-headed decisions" and prevent the Bristol Bay watershed from being turned into an industrial mining site.
The groups sent a letter Wednesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him to direct the Bureau of Land Management to protect the Bristol Bay watershed - home to the world's most productive wild salmon streams - and close federal lands to mining.
At issue is a resource management plan for the area produced by the Bush administration in its last days. The groups say the plan attempts to remove protections for fish and wildlife in the watershed.
"We look forward to working with the BLM as we move quickly to reverse the wrong-headed decisions that were made in the closing months of the last administration and implement a common sense plan for fish and wildlife in Bristol Bay," the letters says.
Chris Wood, Trout Unlimited's chief operating officer, also said a meeting with Salazar has been requested to discuss the issue.
Other signers of the letter include large organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation, Wildlife Forever, American Sportfishing Association and American Fly Fishing Trade Association. Nine international groups, 47 Alaska groups and dozens of groups from other states also signed.
Wood said what the previous administration did was make it possible to open the federal lands to mining with a stroke of the secretary's pen.
"What is maddening is that they didn't even look at the values of the fisheries," he said.
The 1.1 million acres of federal land are next to the Pebble Mine, a world-class copper and gold deposit being considered for development on state land. Trout Unlimited is strongly opposed to Pebble because of its location near the headwaters of two rivers that produce large runs of sockeye and king salmon.
Gary Berlin, president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, said BLM Director Bob Abbey has a chance to undo a wrong by permanently putting the nearby federal lands off-limits to mining.
"This fishery is too rare, too productive, and too valuable to put at risk," he said.
Mining companies Northern Dynasty and Anglo American have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years scoping out the Pebble deposit.
"If this site is opened and Pebble is developed up above that, you are looking at an enormous mining district," Wood said. "There is no way salmon can withstand that kind of development."
Wood said the Bristol Bay area's commercial and sport salmon fisheries generate about $360 million a year and provide 12,500 jobs, while also feeding many in the region.
"We are convinced that your agency can produce and implement a land-use plan for Bristol Bay that will generate economic opportunities while also conserving sporting and indigenous traditions for future generations," the letter says.
The federal land has been closed to mineral development for more than 30 years.
"The Pebble mine is bad enough but to have the BLM opening the door for a mining district in Bristol Bay is simply unacceptable," said Alaska lodge owner Brian Kraft.