The Taku River is funneling a lot more than pocket change into Juneau's economy.
Juneau residents, politicians and economic leaders got a tutorial Friday on the hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars that have flowed from the scenic, wild river, which originates in Canada, into Juneau's economy in recent years.
From Juneau gillnetters to seafood wholesalers, at least 400 people earn income from the commercial harvest of Taku River salmon, with a total regional impact of $5.4 million, the consulting firm the McDowell Group said in a presentation to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.
"It was kind of a surprise to us. ... These are some significant numbers," consultant Eric McDowell said while discussing the first economic profile of the river.
Sport fishing on the river, 10 miles southeast of Juneau, provides 40 jobs and about $2 million to the regional economy, according to the McDowell Group study.
In 2003, the approximate retail value of flightseeing operations to the Taku was $13 million and visitors spent $240,000 on guided river trip packages, the consultants found.
The McDowell study was commissioned by the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters, whose fleet has harvested a 10-year average of 217,000 salmon per year from Taku Inlet. That's a third of the annual salmon harvest from the Taku Inlet-Port Snettisham-Stephens Passage fishing district.
But the study found a distinct lack of economic benefit to Juneau from a proposed Canadian multi-metal mine planned by Redfern Resources Ltd., of Vancouver, British Columbia, in the Taku River watershed. The Tulsequah Chief mine would employ 200 for about nine years. McDowell said, citing Redfern's own estimates.
The mine site is on the east side of Canada's Tulsequah River, about six miles north of its confluence with the Taku.
"You can draw your own conclusions about the mine," said Jim Becker, Juneau chapter president of the gillnetters' association. "We're not out to stop them ... as long as their activities don't impact our industry," he said after the meeting.
The McDowell study did not present any opinion on the suitability or environmental impact of the proposed Canadian mine, but Chamber of Commerce members drilled McDowell with questions about it.
"My question is, will the impacts to us be weighed as carefully as the impacts to Canada?" said Jackie Stewart of the Juneau Small Business Development Council. "It sounds like we aren't at the table," she said.
State Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, said after the meeting that it was clear that the Redfern mine will not provide an economic benefit to Juneau like the Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island or the proposed Kensington Mine at Berners Bay.
With the Tulsequah Chief mine, "we may end up with all the problems and none of the benefit and we just need more information," Weyhrauch said.
Juneau Chamber of Commerce President Mike Story said he believes Canada's environmental laws are weaker than Alaska's. The chamber hasn't stated a formal position but it wants the United States to have a voice in Canada's deliberations on the mine, he said.
Story said it has been difficult to find a "conduit to Canada" - a way that Juneau, state or federal leaders can communicate their concerns to the Canadian government.
Chris Zimmer, with the Transboundary Watershed Alliance, said Canadian leaders declined to participate in a scheduled forum in Juneau about the Tulsequah Chief mine, planned for Wednesday. The Canadian Department of Oceans and Fisheries recently informed Juneau city leaders that the forum date predated the department's planned release of a draft report on the mine.
The forum has been delayed, Zimmer said. "We need to take a very hard look at this mine," he said.
He blamed Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski for not keeping up pressure on Canadian officials. "If anything, he keeps egging them on to build this thing," Zimmer said.
The Taku originates in Canada but slices through the Coastal Range in Southeast Alaska before it discharges into Stephens Passage. The wild river terrain is dotted by isolated cabins and at least 177 privately held land parcels.
Before the river discharges into Stephens Passage, it pools in the large Taku Inlet where Juneau gillnetters set their nets for sockeye salmon.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.