Bristol Bay: The Heart of the Watershed and Its People

By Dennis McLerranMcLerran

Last week my colleague Nancy Stoner wrote about our recent visit to Bristol Bay, Alaska. I would also like to share my perspective about this incredibly valuable trip and our ongoing Watershed Assessment to examine the potential impacts of large-scale development – particularly mining.

On our first stop, tribal leaders and community residents from Iliamna, Newhalen and Nondalton, shared their perspectives about their subsistence way of life, the fishery, and the proposed mining activities in the area north of Iliamna Lake. We met with Pebble Partnership executives for an update on environmental studies and mine planning, and flew to the prospect site to see the exploration activities firsthand.

We then flew to Ekwok along the Nushagak River. People in the village were excited because the first king salmon had just been netted, and the sockeye fishing season was just a few weeks away. Residents spoke eloquently about their concerns that mining could cause them to lose the fish and game they have depended on for generations. After the meeting we boarded a jet boat to New Stuyahok. Many elders attended this meeting and gave us a strong sense of the connection between the village, the river and its resources. We travelled up the Mulchatna River to Chief Luki’s cabin site, and hiked up a nearby hillside to look across the vast stretch of tundra. We dined on traditional foods and then got back in the boat to travel upriver to Koliganek.

The following morning, we met for several hours with a large group in Dillingham that included Bella Hammond, wife of former Alaska Governor Jay Hammond, current and former Alaska legislators, tribal elders and many local residents and fishing permit holders. We listened intently as the group expressed strong concerns about resource development and protection of the Bristol Bay salmon.

The trip took us to the heart of the watershed and gave us a rare opportunity to travel to the villages that are most concerned about our Watershed Assessment. We heard from supporters of mining development as well as those who believe large scale mining would be inconsistent with the preservation of subsistence ways of life and the Bristol Bay fishery.

The ability to see the watershed, the villages, Bristol Bay and the proposed resource development area firsthand is something that could never be matched by pictures or PowerPoint presentations. It is a trip I will never forget.

About the author: Dennis McLerran is the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10, which serves the people of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

Learn more about EPA’s Watershed Assessment of Bristol Bay

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