On a bright July morning, in the tiny community of King Salmon on Alaska’s Bristol Bay, Nanci Morris Lyon bustles around her docked fishing boat. The water beneath is clear 15 feet down, like looking through glass. Up the slope behind Bear Trail Lodge, which Lyon has owned and operated for 11 years, the low-slung tundra unfolds for miles, stopped only by the snowy wall of mountains in the far distance.
It’s the height of the salmon run, and Lyon is readying the boat for her sport-fishing guests, who have to take a puddle-jumper plane for the hour-long flight from Anchorage — there are no roads to Bristol Bay. This season, tourists also have to abide by Alaska’s Covid-19 quarantine regulations for out-of-state travelers. But Lyon’s guests are willing to practice strict procedures; fishing in Bristol Bay represents an increasingly rare experience that’s worth the extra burdens.
Wild-salmon runs have taken a steep nosedive in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest in the past few decades, due to dams, fish hatcheries, the climate crisis, and other factors. Salmon are extinct across 40 percent of their historical range, and many of the remaining runs are threatened or endangered. But Bristol Bay, the biggest wild-salmon run on Earth, with a West Virginia-size watershed, remains a thriving refuge for all five species of Pacific salmon: Chinook, sockeye, coho, chum, and pink. From May through October, the tide pulses with walls of salmon returning to their birth rivers, a phenomenon called “red gold” for all the bounty it brings — $162 million in labor income alone, and more than half of the world’s annual sockeye catch. Eagles and bears flock to the water, thousands of commercial and sport fishermen descend on the bay, and indigenous people harvest the sea in a subsistence practice countless generations old.
But all of it is now at risk. In 2001, a small Canadian mining-exploration company called Northern Dynasty Minerals began plans for extracting the Pebble Mine, a massive store of copper, gold, and other minerals that lies underneath two of Bristol Bay’s most productive salmon streams. Following years of fighting led by Lyon and others, the EPA blocked the Pebble Mine in 2014 after scientists found it would result in “complete loss of fish habitat.” That decision has protected the bay, its salmon, and its people — until now.
On June 26th, 2019, Air Force One landed at Alaska’s Elmendorf Air Force Base for a refueling stop. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican of the Trumpist mold who had effectively already kissed the ring by promising to “Make Alaska Safe Again” when he took office in 2018, boarded and spoke with the president for 20 minutes. After emerging onto the tarmac, Dunleavy bragged that Trump agreed to do “everything he can to work with us on our mining concerns and our timber concerns.”
The day after the meeting, Trump ordered his administration to remove protections on Bristol Bay. And within two months he ordered protections removed from the Tongass National Forest, in southeast Alaska, the largest intact temperate rainforest on the planet, which scientists have called the “lungs of the country.” The Tongass absorbs more carbon than any other national forest, on par with the world’s most-dense terrestrial carbon sinks in Chile and Tasmania. The author of one 2019 study called preserving the Tongass “Alaska’s best and final shot at preparing for climate change.”
But even amid the pandemic, the Trump administration has been moving full speed on stripping Bristol Bay and the Tongass of protections. The government is expected to award a permit for the Pebble Mine any day now, and to lift restrictions on logging the Tongass by late summer or early fall. And this is on top of the move to open up 1.6 million acres of the Coastal Plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development — a plan that was officially approved on Monday.
“It was in line with Dunleavy and Trump to date to take the most brazen actions with no thought for the people, only making the rich richer and consequences be damned,” says Alanna Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB), which represents the 15 federally recognized tribes that make up 80 percent of the region’s population.
Alaska, a red state that Trump won by nearly 15 points, has a noted pro-development streak. Residents receive annual dividends from oil and gas revenues, and a majority of residents actually support the move to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. But Bristol Bay and the Tongass Forest are a different story, and the people of southern Alaska have risen up in defense of these pristine ecosystems, which their livelihoods — and the planet — depend on.
“ANWR is far away, and the number of people who interact with it is tiny,” explains Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState, an Alaska-based advocacy group. “It’s a totally different setup in southern Alaska, with tens of thousands of people living and working in Bristol and the Tongass. In going after those, the administration woke a sleeping giant.”
When the residents around Bristol Bay first heard rumblings about a mine back in the early 2000s, they were romanced by the prospects for economic uplift. “The economy was depressed with the increased cost of living out here,” says Lyon. “A gallon of milk cost $10, just for perspective. But then we started hearing more about what the mine would actually look like.”
Northern Dynasty’s plan outlined what would be the largest open-pit mine in North America: a mine pit covering seven square miles, three-quarters of a mile deep, calling for an 86-mile private transportation route, and the supposed capacity to treat massive quantities of contaminated water in perpetuity after the mine’s eventual closure. Its construction would cross more than 200 streams and the Iliamna Lake headwaters; its dams and embankments would block critical salmon habitats; and it would destroy 81 miles of salmon streams and close to 3,500 acres of existing wetlands, lakes, and ponds.
“I never ran from a challenge,” says Lyon. Raised in Spokane, Washington, she moved to Alaska 35 years ago and became one of the first female fishing guides in the state. So when Northern Dynasty came for Bristol Bay, she turned herself into a self-taught political activist. “I have that personality, quadruple A. If you said I couldn’t do something, I would go and do it.”
She began making calls and writing letters to her state representatives and her U.S. senators. Alaskan organizations such as SalmonState and Save Bristol Bay caught wind of her activism, backed her with resources, and pointed big players like the Natural Resources Defense Council in her direction, who helped bring her to the U.S. Capitol to testify before Congress.
“Commercial, sport fisherman, and subsistence fisherman would never work all together on anything,” says Lyon. “But we’re at the same table with the same spear in our hand.”
“The tribes around Bristol have united on many other issues, like offshore drilling,” says Alannah Hurley of the UTBB, which was founded specifically to fight the mine. “But Pebble brought that unity to another level.”
For thousands of years, wild salmon have been the foundation of traditional Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq ways of life, for both subsistence and cultural identity. “For us to have our traditional life-ways threatened would be the extinction of our people as we know it,” Hurley says. “Our tribes weren’t going to trade our cultures based on our pristine ecosystem for short-term mining jobs.”
Hurley has been working in “the resistance,” as she calls it, since she graduated high school in 2004. She grew up in the tiny community of Dillingham. Her grandmother was born pre-statehood, one of the first to see non-native people arrive in the area. Like Lyon, Hurley taught herself how to advocate, speaking at shareholder meetings in London that helped result in major stakeholders walking away from the Pebble project, including giants Rio Tinto and Mitsubishi, leaving Northern Dynasty the solitary and woefully underfunded single owner of a project with near-unanimous regional opposition.
The UTBB is also directly responsible for the original EPA protections on Bristol Bay. In 2011, its tribes petitioned the EPA as sovereign nations to prohibit all large-scale mines in the region. In response, the EPA conducted the peer-reviewed studies of Northern Dynasty’s early plans that led to the agency blocking the mine in 2014, citing a provision in the Clean Water Act.
“Supporters in the lower 48 celebrated, thinking the door was closed,” says Lyon. “But we in the heart of it didn’t. We were fully aware that the 2014 decision didn’t remove the threat altogether.”
Sure enough, Northern Dynasty sued the EPA, reaching a settlement with the agency in 2017, and applied for a permit to initiate a federal environmental-review process. This time, the company called for a 1.4 billion-ton mine — nearly six times bigger than the 2014 scenario the EPA analyzed. A 2019 report by the Nature Conservancy found habitat losses could exceed the 2014 scenario by as much as 400 percent.
Northern Dynasty argues that the economic opportunity outweighs keeping Bristol Bay pristine. “There’s more to this story than just development versus environment,” says Mike Heatwole, Northern Dynasty’s vice president of public affairs. “What about looking at employment opportunities in a region that needs jobs? What about the copper the world needs to meet demand for moving away from fossil fuels? Wouldn’t we rather have that come from a country with strict environmental rules?”
But according to their own web site, Northern Dynasty promises only 750 to 1,000 direct jobs with the Pebble Mine, while the salmon run generates 14,000 jobs annually in addition to providing subsistence for the tribes.
And the world might demand copper, but even Republican experts agree that we shouldn’t be getting it from Bristol Bay. Last year, three former EPA administrators under four Republican presidential administrations wrote a joint public comment that concluded: “The question of whether to build a massive open pit copper and gold mine in the heart of the planet’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery has a simple answer. The Pebble Mine is the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place, and the answer is no.”
Even Donald Trump Jr., who Lyon took fishing in Bristol Bay in 2014, called on his father and the EPA to block the mine’s development, tweeting in early August that “the headwaters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fishery are too unique and fragile to take any chances with.”
But on June 27th, 2019, the day after Trump and Dunleavy met on Air Force One, the EPA internally informed its staff scientists that the agency would be reversing its protections on Bristol Bay.
Lyon recalls the reaction back home as widespread panic. “I can’t tell you how many times my phone rang with people asking, ‘Nanci, what are we going to do?’ I don’t know. I’m a fishing guide, for God’s sake.”
Calls to their congressional delegation to intervene fell mostly on deaf ears. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has gone on record saying that “adverse impacts to Alaska’s world-class salmon fishery and to the ecosystem of Bristol Bay are unacceptable,” but she, Sen. Dan Sullivan, and the state’s sole representative in the House, Don Young, have all refused to take positions on the Pebble Mine, preferring to await the EPA’s final decision.
That decision was more or less finalized last month, when on July 24th, the Trump administration released its final environmental-impact statement, determining Northern Dynasty’s proposal for a 1.4 billion-ton mine to be the “least environmentally damaging” option for moving forward (out of options that included not developing a mine at all). All that’s left is for the EPA to publish the decision, which is set to happen by mid-August, and the mine will officially be greenlighted.
“We have not been heard,” says Lyon. “[Gov. Dunleavy] refuses to answer, respond or acknowledge anything any of us have said. It feels like we’re swinging on the end of a rope, and if we let go, the crocodiles will eat us. We’re at their mercy.”
Outside Kake, a tiny village on Kupreanof Island in the Tongass National Forest, Joel Jackson walks an old logging road. Skinny second-growth trees have muscled their way up on the surrounding slopes in the 40 years since Jackson built this road for his community-owned logging corporation.
“The forest all around used to be big beautiful trees,” he says, gesturing down to the sparse village on the seashore. Jackson, 63, is president of the Organized Village of Kake, home to the federally recognized Kake tribe of the Tlingit people. “When you walk into old growth, it’s like walking into a cathedral.”
At nearly 17 million acres, twice the size of Maryland, the Tongass is America’s biggest national forest, covering most of the southern Alaskan panhandle. In addition to the nearly 90,000 people who live in or just outside the forest’s borders (many in well-known hubs like Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan), the dripping green forest of old-growth hemlock, spruce, and cedar is a stronghold for brown bears, which have dwindled in the lower 48, and is home to the largest known concentration of bald eagles. The Tongass’ canopy, with some trees more than 800 years old, shades some of the world’s last productive salmon streams.
In the 1980s, Kake decided that if anyone would log its old-growth surroundings, it would be its own operation, bringing jobs and income to its own people. “After the last tree fell, I looked up into these hills. It looked like a war zone,” Jackson says. “I asked myself, ‘What the hell did we just do?’”
Within months, the damage was obvious. Streams that “once held so many salmon you could walk across their backs,” says Jackson, slowly deteriorated — a devastating blow to a community that’s been dependent on salmon as the main food staple for millennia. The moose and deer the locals relied on for meat vanished, victim to increased predation by wolves that used the logging roads as hunting corridors. In a region where the cost of living is so expensive that subsistence off the landscape is crucial, food security became a serious issue. Young families moved away in search of work, and the community shrank by more than half, down to fewer than 500 people, with an 80 to 85 percent unemployment rate. Community members who remained were forced to cross 34 miles of open ocean to neighboring Admiralty Island to hunt.
The bottom fell out of the timber industry in southeast Alaska in the 1990s. “It was a typical boom-and-bust economy, and we busted,” says Jackson. “It used to be such a balance, with everything underneath the canopy. Berries, deer, bear, and the forest keeping our streams cool and pristine so the salmon could come back year after year. It was a beautiful time, and I miss those times.”
About half of the Tongass’ old-growth trees survive. They’ve been protected since 2001, when President Clinton, as one of his last acts in office, introduced the “roadless rule,” which barred the construction of roads in 58.5 million acres of undeveloped forest across the country, including more than half of the Tongass.
In 2018, Alaska’s then-Gov. Bill Walker initiated the lengthy process of making modest changes to the roadless rule to allow a few sections of the Tongass to be reopened to logging. But Dunleavy has promised to go much further. After his June 26th meeting with Trump, the president ordered the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), to wipe all roadless protections from the forest: a green light to begin logging its old growth again.
The move makes little sense in today’s timber economy. A recent report from the Center for Sustainable Economy documented taxpayer losses of nearly $2 billion a year from federal logging programs, largely due to the fact that demand for timber has been flagging nationally. Regardless, Trump signed an executive order in December 2018 to increase national-forest logging by 40 percent. “It’s nonsensical, but that’s the reality of what the Trump administration has brought us,” says Joel Reynolds, Western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Alaska’s federal delegation, however, joined Dunleavy in support of lifting the roadless rule, spinning it as “what Alaskans want” in op-eds, joint press releases, and statements that claim the rule was federal overreach and has for years restricted “needed access” for timber.
The communities of southeast Alaska disagree.
The Organized Village of Kake, along with several other tribes in the region, had been participating in stakeholder meetings with the USFS since late 2018. They were presented with six proposed plans, ranging from Alternative 1, leaving all protections in place for the Tongass, to Alternative 6, lifting all protections for the Tongass. In multiple meetings, the USFS focused only on Alternatives 1 to 5, says Jackson; the agency never discussed Alternative 6 in those meetings. It seemed that lifting all protections was never an option on the table.
Kake consistently advocated for no action, as did several other tribes. Communities from Ketchikan and Petersburg, west to Sitka, and north to Skagway passed resolutions against lifting the roadless rule.
“The people have spoken,” says Tim Bristol of SalmonState. “We want protection for the most productive wild places left, we want a landscape that remains beautiful and allows for all these things that make living in southeast Alaska so great.”
Like Bristol Bay, southeast Alaska is home to all five species of Pacific salmon; a report from the American Fisheries Society quantified annual contributions of the Tongass and its neighboring forest, the Chugach, at 48 million salmon, with a value to commercial fisheries averaging $88 million. And thanks to its rich wildlife and pristine stretches of forest, the Tongass region hosts the highest number of tourism-related jobs in Alaska: 48 percent of the state’s total, generating $761 million annually in labor income.
But despite united local opposition to lifting the roadless rule and a national public comment period that yielded 96 percent national support for keeping protections in place, in October 2019, the USFS formally announced Alternative 6 as its preferred alternative for managing the Tongass. The Department of Agriculture is expected to issue its final decision late this summer or fall.
“I feel very disrespected by the whole process,” Jackson says. But his tribe and others are not backing down. On July 21st, nine southeast Alaska tribes submitted a petition to the Department of Agriculture to create a first-of-its-kind Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule “to save their ancestral lands in the Tongass National Forest from destruction at the hands of the agency itself.”
“All other avenues to protect our homelands have been exhausted, to little avail,” they wrote.
This new process could pause the agency’s actions on the roadless rule, as it would require identifying and protecting the “traditional use” areas of the forest. But the Department of Agriculture is not required to accept or even respond to the petition.
“They responded to the state of Alaska’s petition to lift the roadless rule in a matter of months,” says Marina Anderson, vice president of the Organized Village of Kassaan of the Haida tribe. “I hope that because this is a petition coming from nine nations, instead of one state, that they’re taking a big look at this and preparing for their response ahead of the final decision on the Tongass.”
Most experts agree that there’s slim chance the Trump administration’s final decisions on the Tongass and Bristol will reflect public will, much less any environmental protection. Some residents are hoping for a Biden administration to save the day. Some are hoping for at least a Senate flip to Democratic control, which would open new legislative strategies for protecting these places. And barring those, people are planning their last stands for the courtroom.
“I hate to say that dirty word, but litigation is all we’re left with,” says Jackson.
“We’re prepared to take legal action if necessary to protect Bristol Bay,” says Erin Whelan, staff attorney for Earthjustice, a national organization that’s been aiding local communities on the issue since 2004. To legally satisfy the Clean Water Act, she says, the environmental review has to find that the Pebble Mine as proposed won’t have unacceptable adverse effects on the fishery. “I don’t know how they could justify that when the 2014 EPA watershed assessment found that even a smaller and less destructive mine would have adverse effects.”
Lyon can barely put into words what would happen to Bristol Bay if the Pebble Mine were to go forward. It would be a slow death, she says. Mining roads would provide access to this remote place to forever change its character. The salmon would fade as the waters deteriorated, and all the people and animals that depend on them would start to disappear from the bay.
I ask how it would feel personally. Lyon pauses, for an interminable moment, and finally says, “I would feel like my guts had been ripped out. It’s my life. If you take it away, all I’ve held near and dear and protected …” She trails off, unable to finish the thought.
Hurley finishes it for her from across the bay in Dillingham. “We’ve been at it for a long time,” Hurley says. “We have not faltered. No matter what happens with this federal permit, we’re going to keep going. We don’t have a choice.”