ANCHORAGE - A large mine in the heart of some of the best salmon and trout fishing in the world is a fly fisherman's worst nightmare, says the head of a major sport fishing trade association.
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"The prospect of hard rock mining in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska scares the hell out of the fly angling community and the businesses that service it," American Fly Fishing Trade Association President Robert Ramsay said. "These are some of the most cherished fly fishing waters on earth."
That's why 37 leaders in the sport fishing industry have formed an alliance to fight the proposed Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska, Ramsay said. If built, the association says the mine would be the largest open pit copper and gold mine in North America - a claim that the company proposing the mine denies.
The association, along with some of the biggest names in the sport fishing industry, including Orvis, Sage, Simms, St. Croix, Patagonia, Scientific Anglers and G. Loomis, want not only the mine project stopped but permanent protection for the Bristol Bay watershed from industrial mining.
In an open letter to the governor of Alaska, the association says: "Many of us, along with our customers from across America and around the world, travel to Bristol Bay to pursue some of the world's last great runs of wild salmon and trophy rainbow trout.
"Alaska's Bristol Bay is a national and international treasure; its salmon, trout and wilderness character are worth far more than the gold that may lie below the land's surface."
The message will be delivered in full-page, color ads to run in the Fish Alaska magazine in December, January and February. It will also run in the February issue of Fly Fisherman Magazine.
Trout Unlimited, which is paying for the ads, says the combined circulation for the two fishing magazines is more than 155,000. A copy of the letter and the ad is on the Web at http://www.renewableresourcescoalition.org/troutunlimited.pdf.
Tim Bristol, director of Trout Unlimited's Alaska program, said the idea for the ad started at a trade show last August in Denver. He said it was surprising how much people already knew about the Pebble Mine.
"I think many of the companies and their representatives were chomping at the bit to help out," Bristol said. "It is more than just about an ad. This is about these highly-regarded and successful businesses. They decided to lend their support to what we are doing... They said this is the wrong kind of mine in absolutely the wrong place."
Northern Dynasty Minerals says Pebble is the largest North American gold deposit and second-largest copper deposit on the continent. It also sits in the Bristol Bay watershed, which produces five species of salmon and constitutes the largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery in the world.
Trout Unlimited says the mine would cover 15 square miles, with an open pit 2 miles long and a half-mile wide and over 1,700 feet deep.
Bruce Jenkins, chief operating officer of Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. in Anchorage, an American subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver, British Columbia, said Trout Unlimited and the other groups are waging a propaganda and misinformation campaign.
Look at the letter to the governor posted on the Web, Jenkins said. It features a fly fisherman at "the famous Rock Hole on Lower Talarik Creek."
Lower Talarik is not in the area for the proposed mine and would not be affected, he said.
Jenkins said the company has not yet settled on a design for the mine.
How, he asks, do these groups know what Northern Dynasty is going to do when the company hasn't decided yet?
"This is fear mongering and rhetoric and emotion to stir up controversy," Jenkins said. "We haven't designed our project, yet."
According to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources' Web site, Northern Dynasty Mines is proposing to construct "a large open pit mine and milling operation" 15 miles northwest of Iliamna that would produce gold, copper, molybdenum and silver. The mine site is 238 miles southwest of Anchorage near Iliamna Lake.
The company has filed documents with the state to secure water rights for the mining operation. It also has filed an initial application to construct a dam rising more than 700 feet to hold mine tailings.
Jenkins said the earliest the mine would open is in five years. It will need dozens of permits and will require "armies" of scientists and engineers scrutinizing the work, he said.
"We have to justify everything we are saying and only then will we get permits," Jenkins said.
So far, Northern Dynasty has spent more than $120 million on exploration, drilling and social and environmental studies, Jenkins said.
Jenkins points out that the site is on state land that has been designated for mineral exploration and development.
"It has been set aside for mining," he said. "We are entitled to be where we are."
Northern Dynasty has reasons to hang tough. The company estimates the total value of the metals in the ground at Pebble Mine at between $150 billion and $200 billion. The metals include 48 billion pounds of copper and 64 million ounces of gold. The company has not determined how much is recoverable.
Bristol acknowledges that the fishing groups probably can't win the economic argument, but they can point to some impressive numbers.
Trout Unlimited commissioned a joint study by the University of Alaska and the University of Montana that says the Bristol Bay salmon fishery generates an estimated $400 million per year, with sport fishing accounting for about $120 million of that.
The study says nearly 65,000 people visited Bristol Bay in 2005 for recreation with the majority coming for the fishing.
"It is awfully shortsighted," Ramsay said, of the proposed mine. "Once the gold is gone, it is gone. The fly fishing resource is utterly renewable."
Ramsay said one of the things in Northern Dynasty's plan that scares him the most is the plan for the tailings dam. He wonders what would happen in an earthquake. Alaska is the most seismically active of the states and recorded the strongest earthquake ever in North America - magnitude 9.2 - on March 27, 1964.
Jenkins said Northern Dynasty looked at over 5,000 "earthquake events" in Alaska over the last 50 years when designing the dams. They have "layers of safety built on layers of safety," he said.
"The vast majority of mines and embankments have no problems. Problems are the exception to the rule," Jenkins said.
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