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The Democracy of Salmon

David Lynn Grimes
OPINION: I applaud Sen. Mark Begich for his recent statement against the proposed Pebble mine. Bristol Bay is already developed, a naturally extravagant factory of Mother Nature teeming with priceless and irreplaceable wild salmon runs. Pete Hamel / NPS

Oh, those bright silver jewels with their incomparable red flesh! How magnificently they stitch together land and sea. Every season with their spawning runs salmon bring forth a brilliant feast of democracy, an offering relished by the whale people, by the seal and sea lion people, by the raven, eagle, bear and wolf people, and yes, relished by those of us in our temporary assignment as the human people.

Alaska remains the last bastion on earth for healthy wild salmon runs. The proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay is a great test of this democracy of salmon. Will the Last Frontier, world-renowned for its wildlife and wild way of life, remain a remarkable remnant of Eden in a sometimes world of woe -- or be sacrificed as another resource colony on the altar of corporate plunder? This is a big deal, a watershed event in Alaska history. Citizens of the salmon, we have an extraordinary opportunity to help Alaska remain a beacon to the world, a shining example of how humans and the rest of the creation can coexist with respect and admiration.

With his recent statement against Pebble Mine, Sen. Mark Begich has now put his hand on the scales. I applaud him for joining so many others in the effort to protect and praise wild Alaska. But it also seems like common sense. If one is sincerely making the case for responsible development, wouldn't the first question one must answer be: where then would it be irresponsible to develop?  I respectfully put that question to Sen. Murkowski, Rep. Young and others who have yet to declare themselves.

But let us now sing the praises of dearly departed Alaska politicians. If he hadn't been according to his wishes buried standing up, would Wally Hickel now be turning over in his grave concerning Pebble? Wally was critical of the project while alive, though I'm not sure he ever said "no way." But Wally was perennially incensed at how the oil industry kept taking the lion's share of oil profits out of his beloved "owner state." Pebble Mine would be much much worse, with far less coin trickling into state coffers.

Here's the deal -- the proverbial lion's share would be vacuumed into the offshore accounts of foreign multinational corporations; the great majority of skilled and well-paying jobs would go to those who live outside the Bristol Bay watershed; and for the coup de grace -- after the corporations say adios and toodle-oo -- they will leave in their wake one of the world's largest toxic dumpsites, a sword of Damocles hanging over Bristol Bay for the next 1,000 years, give or take an eon or two. For insurance purposes I’ve heard Lloyd's of London defines "perpetuity" as 50 years. If responsible development equates forever with 50 years (around the time Pebble is abandoned), then we just wind up practicing corporate socialism -- as in socialize the cost and privatize the profit.

I can understand the zeal of those who are paid to promote the project. Upton Sinclair famously observed, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." But dear Uncle Ted Stevens spoke out against the Pebble Mine while he was alive, as did esteemed former Gov. Jay Hammond. And I fondly recall Hammond's tenure during the heyday construction of the Alaska pipeline, when the bush pilot and salmon fisherman-turned-governor said something to the effect that "Fish and oil are both important to Alaska, but we should consider these things alphabetically, and fish comes before oil." Hammond, the great wit, would no doubt have noticed that 'fish' comes before 'mining' as well.

Hammond also observed that Alaska has a tendency to get involved with what he called "uneconomic development," the sorts of schemes that line the pockets of the few at the economic expense of the many. To which, in the case of Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine, we might add "uneconomic un-development." Bristol Bay is already developed, a naturally extravagant factory of Mother Nature teeming with priceless and irreplaceable wild salmon runs. Anything that would jeopardize this renewable resource is hardly an improvement upon the Creation.

The use of minerals has unquestionably led to some of our most remarkable modern technologies. But let’s not forget that mining history is replete with ill-advised and unregulated projects which have left behind toxic tailing piles and leaking leach ponds that pollute watersheds for oh so many generations to come. Pebble would be all of this on steroids, in one of the most wildly productive salmon habitats on earth. It is a great test of our time.

Every summer, like clockwork, salmon miraculously return to the bay. Whether by subsistence, commercial or sport, we humans participate in this great feast of abundance. I have heard it said that the gift of salmon to the community is that of food, family and freedom. Food, family and freedom. Isn't that the essence of democracy?

David Lynn Grimes, an artist, was formerly a commercial salmon and herring fisherman in Bristol Bay, Prince William Sound and the Copper River.

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.