My Turn: Gold prices should be good news

While it may not be the right time to revive the timber industry, mining proves lucrative

Posted: Friday, October 06, 2006

I was at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon this week and had the pleasure of listening to the two candidates for State House District 4, Assembly member Randy Wanamaker, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Andrea Doll.

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One question asked by the moderator was how the candidates feel about the timber industry in Southeast Alaska and the possibility of the creation of a state forest out of some of the Tongass National Forest. Doll spoke about the low price of timber, which makes it difficult to see much hope for reviving the timber industry, and expressed her opposition to the creation of a state forest. Wanamaker spoke in favor of the timber industry and the creation of a state forest, citing the need for a steady supply of timber to create viable long-term business relationships.

While I tend to agree with Mr. Wanamaker, and would really like to see some of the 4,500 jobs lost in the past 15 years come back into existence, Doll's comments about the price of timber got me thinking. What commodity does Alaska have that is fetching a high price right now? Well, petroleum is the obvious answer, but we haven't found much of that here in Southeast Alaska.

I then remembered what it was that led to the founding of Juneau in the 19th century - that shiny and valuable commodity known as gold. That made me wonder how the price of gold is doing these days, and as it turns out, it's doing pretty darn well. It was trading in various markets around the world at a price of $572 per ounce, which is much, much higher than it was a decade ago.

This means it is much more lucrative for those in the business of gold mining to invest in mining operations, to get this precious metal out of the ground and into the world's commodities markets. Shouldn't this be good news for Southeast Alaska and Juneau? Ought we not to be happy that economic opportunity presents itself at this place and time?

Coeur Alaska is trying to open a gold production facility just north of Juneau, the Kensington Mine, and this project is well underway. It already employs a lot of Alaskans and will put even more people to work when it's fully operational next year.

If it opens next year.

A lawsuit filed by several environmental groups seeks to halt the project under the guise of objecting to one component, the disposal of mine tailings in Lower Slate Lake. Depositing waste rock produced by mining is both economically sound and environmentally sensible and was approved as compliant with the Clean Water Act by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But it's not good enough for some in the environmental activist community, which prompts me to ask, under what conditions would these persons support the Kensington Mine?

If the tailings were "dry stacked," would that convert the members of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council into mine advocates? They may claim this is so, but I have a very hard time believing it. I think they don't want the Kensington Mine to open under any circumstances, and that they'll continue to impede progress toward its opening at every available opportunity.

There will be a rally today at Marine Park in support of the Kensington Mine, and I understand one of the candidates for governor will be in attendance. That would be the candidate who previously served as governor for eight years, Tony Knowles. Tony has, since announcing his current bid for the state's highest office, claimed to support the Kensington Mine, and has even called on SEACC to drop its lawsuit halting work on the Kensington project. I am shocked - shocked! - that SEACC and its partners in shutting down Kensington before it opens haven't listened to their friend Tony in his ardent support for the mining industry. After all, at least one special staff assistant who worked for Tony came straight from SEACC. There must be some communication between his campaign and this outfit. I wonder perhaps - just possibly - Tony's not as committed to the project as he might have voters think in the run-up to the general election next month. There were certainly a lot of other environmental activists in Tony's administration, and I question how much his team really wanted to see mining jobs created in Alaska.

I've looked at Tony's campaign Web site. The only reference to resource development is the natural gas pipeline, but Tony's warmth to the oil and gas industry has never been called into question.

I hope that those elected officials who have really done meaningful things to advance mining in Alaska are given the thanks they're due at today's rally. And I hope that work at Kensington can continue despite the posturing of faux friends of mining.

•Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan, an actor, attorney and bartender.



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