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Residents critical of changes to state's Bristol Bay management plan

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

Less than a week ago, the state’s Department of Natural Resources released the proposed amendments to its management plan for Bristol Bay’s state-owned lands.

Initial review of these proposed changes has some residents concerned that the revised plan doesn’t offer enough protection of wildlife, subsistence and public use of wild fish and game.

Several Bristol Bay region tribal organizations issued a joint release expressing these concerns, questioning whether the state took into account those issues and opinions most pressing for locals.

A number of bay tribes and stakeholders were plaintiffs in a suit against DNR several years back in the effort to overturn the 2005 Bristol Bay Area Plan. Those concerned citizens and entities are still evaluating the proposed changes, but several local leaders are seeing red flags.

“DNR’s insulated approach to decision-making in this process is a real shame,” said Tom Tilden, Chief of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham. “Because the people of the region have been doing comprehensive thinking about our vision for land use in Bristol Bay while DNR has repeatedly failed to do so.”

The joint statement states that the department drafted the proposed amendments without consulting local residents, governments, tribes or commercial fishing groups.

“Two key themes have emerged from the collective conversations in Bristol Bay,” said Kim William, Director of Nunamta Aulukestai -- Caretakers of Our Lands.

“First, a commitment to the protection of the land, resources, sustainable economy, and a subsistence way of life that is dependent on renewable resources; and, second, a strong recognition of the importance of local voices in managing the natural resources that have sustained us for thousands of years.”

Critics claim that collaboration between state management and local voice is sorely missing. They maintain that such lack of inclusion is evident in the fact that the consensus reached by local interest groups is not reflected in the management plan.

It seems this is especially a concern when it comes to subsistence.

“Even though access to a subsistence way of life is of the utmost importance to local communities, DNR stubbornly refuses to analyze subsistence as a distinct criterion for land use planning,” said Dennis Andrew, the Tribal Council President from New Stuyahok. “As a result, DNR’s proposed revisions do little to protect the people of the region against threats to their economy and way of life by large-scale projects such as Pebble mine.”

The concern that the new management plan reflects a bias toward mining, rather than against it, is what’s troubling Ekwok Village Council Tribal Administrator Richard King.

“We will continue to work to get the state -- or someone else -- to listen to those of us who live here and depend on the region’s fish and wildlife for our way of life,” King said.

Also included in initial concerns is disagreement over habitat classifications for several kinds of wildlife. This includes salmon streams, which are considered habitat only if they are navigable by boat. Some consider this insufficient protection for habitat that extends beyond navigable streams.

Other essential areas that some locals believe need more protection are moose and caribou wintering and calving grounds.

“DNR must start listening to the people, and it should hold multiple public hearings in the region before the end of the public comment period,” said Tilden. “Salmon and wild game are the lifeblood of Bristol Bay communities. ... It is critical for affected communities to have their voices heard. Too often, land use decisions are made by the state without adequate input from and collaboration with affected communities.”

Some organizations, including Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program, have raised serious questions as to the DNR’s ability to develop a plan that reflects appropriate local interest.

“Since Pebble Mine became an issue, tribes, commercial and sport fishing groups, Native corporations, residents, and many who live, work, fish, and hunt in the area have asked DNR to put protection of fish and game, and public uses of them, ahead of mining,” said Tim Bristol, Director of Trout Unlimited Alaska. “DNR has yet to do so, and Alaskans are seriously questioning whether or not the agency can be trusted to protect the public’s interests on these lands. DNR’s unwillingness to respond to the concerns of Alaskans continues to be the impetus for tribes and other regional stakeholders urging EPA to initiate a 404c action that would more adequately protect habitat in the region."

This article was originally published by The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com