BLM plans to open Southwest Alaska land to development

Leasing proposal affects same river drainages as Pebble

Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Environmental, fishing and Alaska Native groups are protesting federal plans to open about 1 million acres of land in Southwest Alaska to mineral exploration and petroleum leasing.

Blocks of Bristol Bay region land could be opened to development for the first time in more than 35 years in the same river drainages as Pebble, a giant copper and gold prospect that has drawn strong protest in Alaska.

One drainage is the Kvichak River, which has the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. The other is the Nushagak River, the state's second-largest king salmon producer.

Pebble is upstream on state land in the headwaters of those Bristol Bay rivers.

"This is a part of my life that can't go disregarded, and it seems like it is," Everett Thompson, a fisherman from Naknek.

"We intend to fight this with every available tool that we can come up with," said Terry Hoefferle, executive director of Numamta Aulukestai, a group of eight village Native corporations in the region.

Closure of the land to development was rooted in the Alaska's Native land claims movement.

For 36 years, millions of acres of federal land have been closed to mining or petroleum leasing because of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the federal law that created Alaska Native corporations.

The Bristol Bay acreage was put off-limits to development while new corporations selected federal land.

Under the Alaska Statehood Act, which Congress passed in 1958, the state also selected federal land, including the Pebble deposit.

So far, the BLM has relinquished 39 million acres to the corporations and 97 million acres to the state. About 14 million acres still needs to be relinquished, said BLM spokeswoman Teresa McPherson.

Native corporations and the state already picked the federal land in the Bristol Bay region with the highest mineral potential, she said.

BLM officials and geologists say there may never be resource development on the lands announced Friday for opening.

"There's just not many signs that there are mineral deposits on those lands," said Greg Beischer, an Anchorage geologist whom BLM hired about two years ago to review mineral potential of the million acres.

Beischer at the time worked for a subsidiary of Bristol Bay Native Corp., which owns millions of acres in the region. He now operates a mineral exploration company.

"We did a rigorous analysis given the data that is available, which is relatively sparse," Beischer said.

The scarcity of data is one reason many are skeptical that the land lacks valuable minerals.

A coalition of commercial and sportfishermen, Native village leaders and environmentalists were already mobilized to fight Pebble.

The coalition is scrambling to block the BLM decision before or after Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne signs documents opening the land to development.

Tactics could include federal legislation, lawsuits or a plea to the incoming president, Barack Obama, to rescind the decision, coalition members said Monday.

If the land has low mineral potential, why open it, said Tim Bristol, the Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited.

"It seems like the process was more about ideology than careful (planning)," Bristol said.

Before Kempthorne can open the land, the BLM must complete bureaucratic tasks and it's unclear whether they will be finished before the Bush administration leaves office in January, McPherson said.

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