At one end of the Taku River watershed is the Tulsequah Chief, an old multi-metal mine developers hope to reopen soon. Downstream, where the river empties into the Taku Inlet near Juneau, local fishermen harvest the watershed's abundant salmon population.
The area isn't subject to a watershed-specific land management plan, and that worries Alaska conservationists and fishermen already concerned about potential pollution from the Tulsequah Chief's tailings facility.
"Once the Tulsequah Chief mine was proposed, a number of agencies and fishermen said, 'Whoa, we need some kind of plan for this watershed that sets up standards and criteria for development,' and from the outset the government of British Columbia has refused to do that," said Chris Zimmer, spokesman for the Transboundary Watershed Alliance.
The watershed crosses the border between Alaska and British Columbia. On the Canadian side of the border is an area known as Flannigan's Slough, which is important to the Alaska salmon fishery.
"That's a very prime, large, productive coho-rearing area, and any kind of pollutants coming out of that mine, especially in the winter, we think would have an extremely negative impact on those rearing fish," said Juneau gillnetter Jim Becker.
Juneau fishermen harvest the fish in the Taku Inlet. Becker said a clean rearing area is particularly important for healthy, high-quality coho, sockeye and king salmon because those species spend up to a year there before going out to sea.
But the mine developer, Vancouver, B.C.-based Redfern Resources Ltd., has said the proposed tailings pond, where the mine material would be dumped after the minerals were removed, is completely contained and does not sit directly on any Taku tributary.
The Tulsequah Chief mine is on the Tulsequah River, a few miles from where that waterway runs into the Taku River. It's about 10 miles east of the Alaska border and about 40 miles from Juneau. It was operated in the 1950s and closed in 1957.
Redfern began working on reopening the mine in the early 1990s. The company proposes to mine mostly zinc, then copper, lead, silver and gold. The provincial government has approved it, but it's unclear when construction will begin, said Redfern President Terry Chandler.
The provincial government has been embroiled in court action by the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, which has a pending historical claim on the land surrounding the watershed.
The Tlingits have developed their own land plan for the watershed, which does not prohibit mining on the nation's historical territory. It does stipulate that mining should be allowed only where assessments show that impacts are acceptable to the nation and where the activity will provide significant economic benefit to the local community.
"We've noticed how industry has conducted itself in the past. We look in their wake and notice that there's not much regard for the environment and wildlife and the water and so on," said John Ward, spokesman for the Tlingit nation. "We felt really challenged to bring a change to how industry and government conduct themselves in our traditional territory."
Chandler said the Tlingit plan is flawed because it approaches land management from a conservation point of view and doesn't adequately provide for economic development.
"Any land use plan that's going to be viable requires there to be an economic development plan associated with it, because otherwise there's clearly no way for the Tlingits or the non-Native community that lives within the Taku River Tlingit traditional territory to survive," Chandler said.
Whether the Tlingits' land plan has an impact remains to be seen. The nation has no legal claim to the land, so its plan isn't binding. The provincial government has seen the plan, but has no plans to adopt it, according to Graham Currie, a spokesman for British Columbia's Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management.
"We do look forward to working jointly with them on some sort of land use plan, but it will probably be sometime in the future. There was an offer made to enter into an agreement with the Taku River Tlingits regarding joint land use planing in the area, but the offer was declined because there is a court case that is continuing," Currie said.
Currie said any provincial land use plan most likely won't be finalized before construction begins to reopen the mine.
Zimmer said his group would like to see a planning document before the Tulsequah Chief reopens.
"If we allow management as has been happening for years up there, which is pretty much piecemeal, what we're going to see is B.C. wanting to build the Tulsequah Chief and, after the fact, think of Alaska fisheries." Zimmer said. "If, on the other hand, Alaskans would come out and support a plan like what the Tlingits have, it would ensure that water quality and salmon are protected. The Tlingits seem to be far more interested in protecting wildlife, water and fish than the B.C. government."
Alaska has kept quiet on the mine issue, but John Manly, spokesman for Gov. Frank Murkowski, said the administration supports the mine's development while being concerned about the salmon run in the watershed.
"We would expect (Redfern) to proceed with good mining practices that don't damage the water column. Even without a land management plan you can have wise use and management of your natural resources," Manly said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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