Alaska: Log, Mine, Drill, Despoil

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

While fires rage in the Amazon and Anchorage, Alaska, registers record high temperatures,  the Trump administration plans to open the world’s largest intact temperate rain forest for exploitation.

The Washington Post reported last week:

President Trump has instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt Alaska’s 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest from logging restrictions imposed nearly 20 years ago, according to three people briefed on the issue, after privately discussing the matter with the state’s governor aboard Air Force One.

The move would affect more than half of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, opening it to potential logging, energy and mining projects. It would undercut a sweeping Clinton administration policy known as the “roadless rule,” which has survived a decades-long legal assault.

Trump has taken a personal interest in “forest management,” a term he told a group of lawmakers last year he has “redefined” since taking office.

The Grey Lady’s editorial board laments:

…Mr. Trump has breathed new life into bad ideas thought to be dead and buried or getting there. Together they demonstrate again how Mr. Trump, when faced with a choice between commerce and conservation, reflexively sides with the former, even when the economic case for conservation is strong.

Alaska has large tourism and fisheries industries. Tourism is Alaska’s second largest private sector employer, accounting for one out of every eight Alaskan jobs; seafood is second only to oil and gas as a source of Alaska’s exports.

As for the Tongass, according to the NYT:

It is not clear why Mr. Trump is doing this, apart from wanting to make Alaska’s Republican leaders happy. The economic gains would be uncertain at best; the timber industry has been in steep decline for years, whereas renewed large-scale logging would inflict damage on two big moneymakers, tourism and the seafood industry. The Tongass is the spawning ground for about 40 percent of the wild salmon that populate the West Coast. At the end of the day the biggest loss may be the trees themselves and all the good things they do, which include storing and absorbing carbon dioxide, a major cause of global warming. Which, as we know, is the last thing on the president’s mind.

Mine the Gold, Poison the Fishery

This forestry decision follows on another July decision by Trump’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA)to unblock the permitting process for the controversial Pebble gold, copper, and molybdenum mine. The EPA had suspended the permitting process in 2014. If this project finally goes forward, it would be the second largest such complex in the world. According to the EPA:

“After today’s action EPA will focus on the permit review process for the Pebble Mine project” said Region 10 Administrator Chris Hladick. “The agency has worked closely with the Army Corps to engage with stakeholders and the public on this issue, which has resulted in an expansive public record, including specific information about the proposed mining project that did not exist in 2014.”

By withdrawing the 2014 Proposed Determination, which was issued preemptively and is now outdated, the agency can continue its focus on fulfilling its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act to work with the Army Corps to review the permit.

Gold mining is a notoriously dirty industry. If the project were to go forward, it would be necessary to store mining waste in perpetuity in earthenware dams, near the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. Opening this mine would privilege the economic interests of resource extraction companies over those of tourism and fisheries.
As TruthOut reported:

The Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, which is funded by fisheries revenues, opposes the Pebble Mine. Bristol Bay President Norm Van Vactor said, “We’re not prepared to trade basically our renewable resource for one-time resource extraction that in all likelihood, it’s not a question of if there will be a problem, it’s actually a question of when that problem will occur.”

Exactly. Alaska has already seen a version of this movie. Can’t we skip the hackneyed sequel?

In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, spilling eleven million gallons of crude oil.  The spill killed hundreds of thousands of sea birds, as well as seals, sea otters, orcas, and other aquatic life.

Just after Labor Day, 2015, I traveled around the sound on a day boat. Earlier that summer, my mother had celebrated her 80th birthday, and our gift to her was a trip to Alaska; I played the role of trip planner, tour guide, and chauffeur.

At that time, Prince William Sound was again replete with bird and aquatic life, although some pockets of oil remain to this day, thirty years after the spill. The population of sea otters has returned to its pre-spill level. Yet the spill caused the collapse of the sound’s herring and salmon fisheries in the 1990s; the herring fishery hasn’t fully recovered. And I wonder how much more magnificent the sound might be today if the spill had never occurred.

Unsurprisingly, a coalition of tribes, environmental organisations, and fisheries groups has formed to oppose the Pebble mine. According to TruthOut:

The coalition’s 9-page letter said the proposed Pebble mine poses significant hurdles for any investor.

“First and foremost is the unrelenting and overwhelming consensus of opposition, which, rather than diminishing is intensifying,” said the coalition.

Kendra Kloster, Tlingit, of Native Peoples Action said the passion for protecting the region will never go away. “You have this entire region that has come together to say they were going to fight against this mine because this is deep in our hearts. This is protecting our homeland. It’s more than just looking at our profits. It’s just more than looking at fish. This is our way of life. This is what it’s like in Alaska and we’re trying to protect our region. And so, yeah, this issue is definitely in the hearts of the people up here in Alaska.”

What Is to Be Done

With these decisions, the Trump administration has rescinded policies that have thus far prevented the Pebble mine from proceeding and the Tongass from exploitation, moving us in each case one step closer to despoiling wilderness. But these battles are far from over. Further complex permitting processes need to be completed before extractive industries can ravage these ecosystems, thereby destroying or corrupting other renewable resources for the sake of one-off gains.

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