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Losing faith in Alaska over Bristol Bay Area Plan revision

Apayo Strub

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is making rounds in Southwest Alaska presenting its newest version of the Bristol Bay Area Plan (BBAP). This revised plan is the state’s answer to a recently settled lawsuit contesting changes made under Governor Murkowski’s administration in 2005 to the 1984 BBAP. The lawsuit was filed by local tribes and fishing groups and highlighted many of the unlawful changes made to the original area plan in hopes of addressing some of the 93 percent of lands which were stripped of their habitat classification that prioritized the subsistence way of life of local residents. In holding these presentations, the DNR would have us believe they are doing a public service, but having attended one, I am sure they are not. In fact, their Iliamna presentation was full of blatant lies and misguidance, even downplaying the importance of the plan's classifications altogether.

The BBAP is the state’s document that drives development on millions of acres of our land, so I was shocked to hear Bruce Phelps, the DNR section chief, say that the re-classifications in this new plan bear no difference on what the land can be used for. When asked why the majority of lands in Bristol Bay’s drainages were stripped of their habitat classification, Phelps claimed that the DNR was using "new data," and re-classification didn’t matter because land classified one way could still be used for something else. Conveniently, he left out an important detail: There is a requirement for compatibility of co-classifications. For example, if land is classified only for mineral development, mines could be developed without regard to the habitat. But, if it is classified as land for mineral development with a habitat or recreation co-classification it must be compatible with both habitat and recreation in order to be developed.

It all starts making sense that the DNR would misguide local Bristol Bay residents and downplay the importance of the classifications when you do your own research and find out that the Pebble Limited Partnership voluntarily jumped on board as a defendant intervener in the lawsuit against the state. If it was really like Phelps says, and classifications have no effect on the development that is permitted in Bristol Bay, why would Pebble volunteer to add more litigation to their list of lawsuits?

To further connect the dots, one of the many changes the state made to the original BBAP was to remove ALL the habitat designations from the lands at the Pebble deposit -- an area which was recognized as essential caribou calving area in 1984. The state’s explanation for these re-classifications at their meetings this week? According to Phelps, the state does not know enough about much of the lands in Bristol Bay to warrant a classification like habitat, although he was contradicting his prior statement that they used all "new data" to redo the area plan in 2005.

So why does this habitat classification matter so much to the residents and tribes in Bristol Bay? First of all, the state will not recognize a subsistence classification for lands, despite the fact that they have classifications for sport hunting and fishing uses. This means the habitat classification is the only way that vital subsistence lands are prioritized over massive mineral development, such as Pebble.

The DNR's own definition of requirements for an area plan includes to take "...into account the short-term and long-term needs of present and future generations for renewable and nonrenewable resources..." Clearly this supports the concept that renewable resources must coexist with the nonrenewable for now and in the future. Unfortunately the 2005 plan, and the state’s most recent revision break the rules for an area plan by eliminating millions of acres that were classified as habitat to protect our future subsistence rights from mineral development. Deputy commissioner of DNR, Ed Fogles says that the 2005 BBAP prioritizes the land for its greatest value. Obviously he is focusing on the short term monetary value of the land, completely disregarding our cultural values and giving us an area plan that would leave our future generations with lakes of toxic mine tailings dripping into the food supply forever.

This plan does not serve our best interest and is all together failing the citizens of Alaska by serving the pocketbooks of corporate bottom lines. Our state has proved to be dishonest yet again, losing my trust in what they call "process." I am asking you to participate in the public discussions in your community and stand up to the DNR. I'd also like you to support the Bristol Bay’s tribes, fishermen and local residents who are looking to the EPA and the Clean Water Act to proactively protect our region. With DNR continuing to hold hands with Pebble, the Clean Water Act could be our only salvation.

Apayo Strub is a Yup'ik artist from Bristol Bay. She grew up commercial fishing and enjoying the outdoors through subsistence. She lives in Dillingham not only because she is inspired by and loves life in the Bush, but to also stay close to the Pebble controversy.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.