Saturday, February 19, 2011


Author’s Note: I haven’t posted too much on The Eddy about the Pebble Mine situation in Alaska. There are a number of reasons for this, but I can boil it down to the fact that there are many, many blogs, websites, and other media covering this particular issue and I didn’t really think my voice was necessary as I didn’t have anything new to add. But with recent events and the chance to potentially end this thing before they ever turn a shovel, I feel obligated. So this is my post, this is my voice. If this resonates with you at all—or even if it doesn’t—consider doing whatever you can to make sure the Pebble Mine doesn’t become a reality.

There are wild places in the lower 48. Pockets of wildness in wilderness areas that envelope mountain peaks and backcountry lakes, deserts and wild rivers. There are portions of national parks that fit the description of wildness. There are no roads through the central portion of Idaho, just mountains. In short, we are not without wildness here south of Canada.

But down here such places are the exception, not the rule.

Alaska has population of roughly 700,000 people. That is less than the population of Salt Lake County in Utah. It is less than the population of Montana—one of the most rural states in the country. It is very close to the population of Vermont

Measured in square miles, Alaska is 65 times larger than Vermont.

Alaska is nearly four times the size of Montana and seven times the size of Utah. It is more than twice the size of TexasAlaska has a population density of 1.2 people per square mile. The United States as a whole has a population density, on average, of more than 87 people per square mile.

This is not to say that the only requirement for wildness is a lack of people. But I would argue it is one of the requirements—at least for the wildness that most of us prefer. There is a wildness in people, I believe. It manifests itself in greed and arrogance and vanity and in a dozen other ways. It is the wildness of an animal that cares only for itself. It is the wildness we try to fight against. It is the type of wildness I’d like to go to Alaska to get away from.

Alaska is more than just a land without very many people. It is, for many of us here in the Lower 48, an ideal as well. We grew up and were fed stories of Alaska—the great white north. Land of dogsleds and salmon, grizzly bears and float planes. A land unlike the one we live in. not always better, but certainly different.

 I don’t know the details of how the Bristol Bay region is linked with the interior of Alaska. But I know that it is the starting line for a lot of salmon. And I know those salmon run in numbers that I have a hard time comprehending.  And those huge hordes of fish are the key food source for many, many animals including enormous leopard-spotted rainbow trout, dolly varden, and perhaps the truest symbol of wildness there is in existence—the grizzly bear.  In short, salmon are a key variable in the equation that equals wildness.  I know all that but I am no expert on the subject.

Someday I’d like to learn more, of course. And I’d like the classroom to be some wild Alaskan river flush with salmon and rainbow trout. I’d like to have to worry about grizzlies a little (not too much) and wonder if I have enough backing on my reel. I’d like to know how it feels to walk on tundra—real Alaskan tundra, not the Hollywood description of Lambeau Field. In order for that to happen, in order for me to be such a student at some undetermined point in the future, Alaska must remain wild and pure and pretty much like it is right now.

It is selfish in a way, I suppose, wanting it to stay as is simply so I can experience great fishing. But the truth is that Alaska is unique in America, and that should be reason enough. Look at those population numbers. Imagine if we dispersed the population of Vermont into state that was 65 times larger than the current state of Vermont. Don’t you think there would be something worth learning in that massive land? Don’t you think there would be something worth protecting?

In many ways the thing that drives me the craziest about the Pebble Mine is that it is a gold mine. I am sure gold is good for a lot of practical things like circuit components and wiring. But I can’t help but think we are risking one of the single greatest places on the planet for a material used mostly to make jewelry and coins, and false front teeth for rappers.

The things we use gold for are the opposite of what is so great about Alaska. Gold coins and necklaces embody the conceptual definitions of greed and vanity.  Sure Alaska as a state has a history tied up in gold and gold rushes. But I can’t help but think of the red gold swimming up the rivers out of Bristol Bay as the more valuable resource—if not monetarily at least in terms usefulness and true beauty. Try to convince a grizzly that a gold necklace is more valuable than a salmon. Try to convince yourself when you see a river carpeted with salmon making its way from the ocean to the top of world.

The places I dream of most often are places I know little about—at least in the most tangible ways. I don’t know a lot about Alaska or Kamchatka or the outer realms of Patagonia. For a desk jockey, suburban father like me, those places are shrouded in a mystery that makes them seem a little dangerous and at the same time, pretty damn amazing. Those places and a few others are the last such places, really.

I live in Idaho. We’ve got a river called the Salmon, and a lake called Redfish. We’ve got stories about salmon runs so thick you could cross a river walking on their backs. We’ve got a history with the fish. And the salmon in Idaho are, for the most part, history.

I’ve fished the Salmon River and some of its better fishing (at least for trout) tributaries. I’ve seen two salmon in my life. The first was a decaying spawner. We found it on the main stem, the river of my father’s past, on some family vacation. I remember it vividly. The fish had finished its journey and was in a side channel, dying one piece of gray flesh at a time.

The other fish was miles into the backcountry, parked in a deep pool of a Salmon River tributary. Up on the trail my brother and I could see the dark missile shape--incredibly outsized for the small stream--resting five or six feet below the surface behind a massive boulder. We fished that river for a week (for trout) and it was the only salmon we saw.

In their own way, both those fish are symbolic of the salmon’s tale here in the lower 48, amongst civilization, clinging to small pockets of wildness.  

So when I think about Alaska and the Pebble Mine and grizzly bears and leopard rainbow trout and schools of salmon that turn the whole river a dark red, I can’t help but ask myself: why risk it?  

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