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Matt Dickerson: Our fishing rivers are under threat

I recently experienced a good scare. It was the kind of scare you get when you think about something really beautiful being transformed into something horrible, or about life being threatened by death. And it had nothing to do with Halloween.
Over the past few years, thanks to a couple of my writing projects, I’ve had the opportunity to visit some beautiful places that are ecologically both fragile and important. One of these was a small Alaskan river, called the Koktuli, which meanders south and then west over blueberry-laden and windswept tundra into the Mulchatna River, which drains into the Nushagak, a major southwest Alaskan river that flows south into Bristol Bay.
A second was Chulitna Bay on Lake Clark. The Chulitna River starts only about a dozen miles from the headwaters of the Koktuli, but it flows in the opposite direction, draining east and a little north through Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and into Lake Clark. At 40 miles long and six miles wide, Lake Clark would dwarf all but a couple Vermont lakes. Lake Clark drains to the south via the Newhalen River into Lake Iliamna — the second-largest lake entirely in the United States — from which the waters flow eventually into Bristol Bay to reunite with the waters of the Koktuli.
Bristol Bay is arguably the most important salmon water in the world. Almost half of the world’s sockeye salmon harvest comes from there. The land is also important territory for vast herds of caribou, as well as moose, grizzly bears and numerous species of birds. The native peoples who dwell there still largely live a traditional subsistence lifestyle, harvesting salmon, caribou, moose and wild berries.
Bristol Bay is such a fertile salmon fishery in part because it offers tremendous spawning habitat for those salmon: rivers like the Chulitna and other tributaries of Lake Clark, as well as the Koktuli and the headwaters of the Nushagak: undammed rivers flowing out of clean, undeveloped, and in some cases protected watersheds like the those of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and the Katmai National Park and Preserve. Both of those national parks were created with the explicit important purpose of protecting important salmon spawning habitat. And, unlike many national parks in the lower 48, Lake Clark NP also has the charter of enabling the native peoples to continue subsistence hunting and fishing and maintain their historic culture and practices.
I’ve twice had the opportunity to spend a day fishing the Koktuli with a friend and a guide. My flight in on a little bush plane took me over that vast tundra, where I was able to watch two small groups of caribou, and see a brown bear splashing through a river chasing after a family of black bear. Our pilot set the plane down on a patch of gravel, and we got out and picked from an abundance of wild blueberries, crowberries and cranberries that crawled across the ground in all directions along with lichen and moss. Though we saw a few patches of low bushes, no trees grew there. The soil was thin, the winds constant and harsh, and the amount of water available in the winter too low. Only a few sheltered river-bottoms hosted trees.
Later we landed on a bluff overlooking the Koktulim which looked no bigger than the Middlebury or New Haven rivers. Though we found pools that were armpit deep, in most places it was easily wadeable with knee-deep gravel riffles, and thigh-deep runs and undercut banks. Yet despite its size, the river was loaded with spawning salmon, mostly bright red sockeyes. Everywhere we walked, we spooked them — some still in big schools, and others already paired up and laying claim to redds.
There were clear (and slightly unnerving) indications that bears had been actively feeding on the fish; half-eaten salmon carcasses littered the streambank alongside fresh bear prints. The massive piles of bear dung meant that all the nearby plants were also benefitting from the nutrients brought upriver by those salmon. And most importantly, from my perspective at the moment, the rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char and grayling were also gorging on eggs that floated loose behind the redds of spawning salmon. Casting egg-sucking leech flies behind the spawning salmon, I was able to land a few of those fat trout and char.
On both visits, my flight back at the end of the day took me right up the Koktuli and over ground zero of the site of the proposed Pebble Mine. If the project had gone through, the potential devastation to the whole Bristol Bay watershed seemed catastrophic. Both the Koktuli and the Chulitna rivers have their sources in the footprint of the mine. The Koktuli essentially flows out of Frying Pan Lake, which would cease to exist if the mine moves forward; the lake would become instead a vast earthen works tailing pond — the largest in the world — to hold the refuse from the mining and metal processing. When those tailings eventually spill, sooner or later, that spill will dump acidic heavy metal sludge in the world’s most important salmon water. But even apart from the inevitable spill, the impact on hydrology and the exposure of all the heavy metals to surface water, as well as the road-building and infrastructure on that landscape necessary for such a large operation, promises catastrophic harm.
I was glad at the time of my first visit two years ago that this mine project had been doubly killed, both through a vote of the people of Alaska and through a rejection of the proposal by the EPA on environmental grounds. But Halloween happens. News over the summer is that the international company that owns the rights to the $3 billion of silver in the proposed Pebble Mine has won a suit to reopen the permitting process. This has happened at the same time that our national parks, which are also charged with protecting these waters, are under threat of exploitation. No ghoul, skeleton or undead creature walking the streets could be as terrifying to me as that news.
One of the things that has really struck home with me over the past few years, especially from my writing travel to places such as these, is that it is much easier to do tremendous ecological harm than it is to heal or restore something once harmed. Another thing I’ve learned is that everyplace is both fragile and important.

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