Pebble Mine Consortium – the Beast That Will Not Die

McNeil River

I’ve written about the Pebble Mine in a number of posts.

It had seemed that the consortium’s efforts to build an open pit mine that would have threatened Alaska’s Bristol Bay were over after the final major partner pulled out.

However, it appears they’re planning another environmental disaster.

Now the consortium has applied for a permit to mine gold, copper, and molybdenum in land 200 miles south of Anchorage – the sought permit will be in an area as close as several hundred yards from the boundary of the McNeil River State Game Reserve and Sanctuary.

If you’ve not heard of the McNeil River you’ve undoubtedly seen photos of tourists safely watching nearby large Alaskan brown bears hunting and feeding on salmon. For 51 years humans and bears have been able to develop a sense of trust in the other as humans can get very close to bears that would tower over NFL defensive tackles – in all that time no human has been killed or injured by the bears.

Now this proposal, if approved, could destroy the sanctuary as the mining and roads will destroy habitat, increase pressure for legal hunting and certainly increase poaching.

There is still time to fight this. The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comment until June 29th.

You, or I, may never visit the McNeil River sanctuary. But as Wallace Stegner noted, knowing that wild places exist – whole and untamed and apart from us, is sometimes just enough.

You can read more here.

Pebble Mine Update: Another Major Player Drops Out

No Pebble Mine

Another major mining company has dropped out of the proposed Pebble Mine project. First Quantum Minerals joins the list of Mitsubishi Corporation, Anglo American, and Rio Tinto who determined the project is a bad investment. Only one small exploration company remains: Northern Dynasty Minerals.

This is a great development that may soon bring an end to the controversial project that threatens Bristol Bay, Alaska.

You can read more here.

Land of the Free

Buffalo Skins Pile

I’ve lived and traveled in the western United States for over 40 years. In that time, I’ve traveled parts of the Oregon Trail and the Lewis and Clark Trail. I’ve been to the areas where Indian wars were fought and the mountain men trapped for beaver. And along the way, I’ve learned a good deal of history of the region – mostly from reading.

The West is the mythos of the land of the rugged individualist. Whether it is the free trapper working alone in the high mountains to trap beaver; the small rancher struggling against both hostile nature and hostile humans; or the miner digging deep or working a stream to strike it rich – all were supposedly able to take just enough from the land to give them the freedom and independence they sought.

However, those myths are mostly false. The true story of the West is one of big government and big business, with individuals reduced to economic pawns supporting a much darker reality: one about destruction of land; extermination of wildlife and native peoples; and the poisoning of rivers and streams.

And by the end of the nineteenth century, before the myths had been developed and enabled by popular culture, the truth of what had been done in the West drove the American people to demand that lands and streams be protected as public lands.

Unfortunately, cynical politicians of today, working for the modern versions of those corporate interests, are trying use the myths to undo the protections put in place so long ago. In doing so, they want to return lands once held in the public trust to private ownership where exploitation becomes inevitable.

Hatch Magazine has a well-written article that details the movement to protect our natural heritage and the threats they face.

You can read the article here.

Montana FWC Rejects Madison River Proposal

In a recent post, I wrote of a proposal to limit the number of commercial guiding operations on the Madison river as well as limiting use of boats on some segments of the river.

Yesterday, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-0 to reject the proposal.

The outfitters who would be impacted were most outspoken in speaking against the proposal. One of the valid points made by the outfitters was that the majority of fly fishers on the Madison are non-commercial anglers who would not have been impacted by the proposed rule changes.

In addition, at least one of the commissioners noted that the proposed plan was not fully vetted as other rivers’ plans had been.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks will watch for public reaction to the decision before deciding on how to proceed with a revised plan.

You can read more here.

Save Bristol Bay…Again

Bristol Bay Salmon

Bristol Bay is the easternmost part of the Bering Sea, and is north of the Alaskan Peninsula. It is home the world’s largest salmon run, and includes all five species of Pacific salmon (King, Coho, Sockeye, Pink, and Chum). And it is again threatened by the Pebble Mine proposal.

The Pebble Mine is an exploratory project in the Bristol Bay watershed. The project is funded by the Rio Tinto Group and Mitsubishi. The ore deposit of the proposed mine is rich in copper, molybdenum, and gold, and is thought to be the second-largest deposit of its kind in the world.

Due to the size of the required operation, there has been opposition due to the downstream risks to the watershed, salmon, and other fisheries. Much of the efforts to stop the mine has been through grass-roots efforts, including members of recognized Native American tribal councils in Alaska.

Every apparent victory in stopping the mine is met by a new challenge. And now the mine has filed for one of the permits needed to proceed with mining. Public comments are now being accepted.

You can read more about the Pebble Mine project here.

You can submit comments on the latest proposal here.

Salmon Canaries

The Seattle Times had an article on laboratory research and field study conducted by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center on the effects of human drugs on juvenile Chinook salmon in Puget Sound. The drugs, ingested and eliminated by humans, then flow through the wastewater systems, treatment plants, and finally into Puget Sound where aquatic animals including juvenile salmon swim through the tainted water.

While there is some extrapolation of data from the laboratory to the field, it appears that juvenile salmon are swimming through a soup of 81 drugs and personal-care products, with levels detected among the highest in the nation. Drugs included Prozac, Advil, Benadryl, and Lipitor. Worse, it appears that while pollution is worse near some rivers flowing into Puget Sound – the Puyallup in particular, fish tested positive for drugs even in rivers where there are no treatment plants like the Nisqually.

The drugs are resulting in stunted growth rates and disrupted metabolisms of the juvenile salmon. The study did not include an evaluation of the long-term survival of the affected fish and their ability to go out into the Pacific and return for spawning. Nor did it look at how their consumption by animals higher in the food chain – specifically seals and resident Orcas – would result in concentration of the drugs in those species.

Salmon populations are threatened by climate change, plastics in the ocean, and now chemical poisoning in their home waters. Perhaps the question will soon be who eats the last salmon?

And even for those not concerned about salmon populations, the bigger question is what are all the drugs and other products entering the environment doing to the humans exposed to them?

Think about this.

Visit any location downstream of a major metropolitan area; any bathing, showering, or drinking water there means ingesting or being exposed to the outflows from the upstream source, including all the common drugs (and more) discussed above.

The juvenile Chinook salmon are just another canary in the coal mine – as if there haven’t been enough already.

You can read the article here.

Saving the Heron Forest

Great Blue Heron

There is a 2.2 acre tract of woods at the foot of Olympic Drive in Gig Harbor, across from the Tides Tavern, that has been home to a heron rookery and the occasional homeless person.

The State of Washington designated the forested tract as a nesting area for great blue herons in 2011. At least eight heron nests had been identified on the wooded lot, with two other potential nests spotted.

The great blue heron is listed as a “state monitor species,” which means the state Department of Fish and Wildlife monitors the birds and manages their populations to prevent them from becoming endangered, threatened or sensitive.

Last year, a developer had reached agreement with the property owner to buy the land with the intent to clear the forest and build a gated community for 35 townhouses. That plan fell through as it would have required a number of deviations from the city’s municipal code. Another developer then stepped forward to buy the land and would have built 12 houses; that plan would have been allowed per the city’s planning department.

Some studies indicated there had been no active nesting after 2014, which apparently eliminated the main obstacle for the proposed developments moving forward.

However, the citizens of Gig Harbor were up in arms about any development of that property. Letters were written, protests were made at council and planning meetings, and the organization Citizens for the Preservation of Gig Harbor worked to buy the property.

And sometimes, there is truth in the saying that elections have consequences.

An election last November saw a new mayor elected – one that replaced a mayor considered, unfairly or not, strong on development and weak on preservation.

Almost immediately, the new mayor began efforts to have the city buy the property. On March 6th, the city council agreed to the discounted asking price and the purchase/sale agreement was signed on March 10th.

Now there is a 60-day period that will include a formal appraisal; an environmental assessment; a tree survey; and due diligence.

It’s heartening to see that people working together can create the future they want to see in their community.

Sometimes the bulldozers can be stopped.

Day Zero and Hook Choices

Hooks

Look at the two hooks above.

The top one is a TMC800s; the one below is a Daichi X452. They are both excellent size-six saltwater hooks. If it’s not clear from the photograph, the TMC is a thicker-wire hook than than the Daichi.

Now, which one should you use?

The answer may be dependent on which fish you are targeting.

In Puget Sound, we spend most of the year fishing for sea run cutthroat trout and resident Coho. In general, most of the fish are smaller than around 14 to 16 inches and do not need a large thick hook to land them – making the Daichi a better choice. Now, for migrating Coho I’d go with the thicker hook.

I had noticed that when I started using the Daichi hook, with its thinner wire and much sharper chemically-sharpened tip, that I was drawing less blood from the fish and the hook was easier to remove – releasing the fish quicker and with less damage; giving it a better chance it will be around for the next fly fisher.

And perhaps a choice of hooks reflects the choices to be made in the larger issues facing us today.

It’s become clear to me that it’s long past time to stop using the term “climate change”, which is a euphemism to avoid inflaming those clinging to dying industries or outdated political ideologies.

The correct term should be “climate crisis.”

The hurricanes, forest fires, and mudslides of last year, and this winter’s storms, have demonstrated that the sometime-in-the-future climate change is here now – constituting an existential crisis.

Elsewhere on the planet, the effects of this crisis are even more clear.

American television does a poor job reporting things happening elsewhere in the world,except for terrorism, wars, and royal weddings.

That’s not the case in other countries. The CBC had an excellent report a few nights ago on the drought in Africa that’s impacting the future of Cape Town – the second most populous city in South Africa.

The drought has reduced the water in the city’s reservoirs to the point that city leaders now speak of Day Zero – the day when the municipal water taps run dry. There will still be water from deep groundwater, requiring people to walk to the 200 distribution points, and there has been a rush to build desalination plants.

And there have been conservation efforts. Residents of Cape Town have been ordered to use no more than 13 gallons per day. That may sound like a lot of water, but in the US the average daily use per person is estimated at between 80 and 100 gallons. Think about how you would get by on 13 gallons of water.

The exact timing of Day Zero is a bit unclear; it was originally thought to be April of this year. Due to conservation and augmentation efforts it has now been pushed out to 2019. Read more here.

But until the drought ends the residents of Cape Town will be living this particular climate crisis.

As with Cape Town, people everywhere will face a Day Zero.

It might be the day when there is no more skiing due to snow levels rising above the tops of resorts.

It might be the day your favorite sports fishery is permanently closed.

It might be the day having an oceanfront house might not be possible no matter how much money you have.

It might be the day the electrical grid drops as severe storms destroy large segments of the transmission and distribution system.

It might be the day there are no ocean fish to be caught for consumption.

It might be the day there is no water to irrigate the lands used for grains and vegetables.

For any of these, and more, the problems may be unsolvable – and our future grim.

But we each have to do what we can. It is about the choices we make regarding our impact on the environment and in the places we live. And hopefully that may be enough to give us time to rethink and rework how we live on this planet.

It starts with conserving water – and using the lightest hook we can.

The Longest Silence – Protecting What We Love

Tom McGuane, for those who may not know of him, is an American writer. He has written ten novels, five screenplays including Rancho Deluxe and The Missouri Breaks, and numerous short stories and essays. And he is a fly fisherman – recognized for his contributions to the sport by the American Museum of Fly Fishing.

I was recently reminded of something he wrote in an essay published 17 years ago in The Longest Silence: A Life in Fly Fishing:

We have reached the time in the life of this planet, and humanity’s demands upon it, when every fisherman will have to be a riverkeeper, a steward of marine shallows, a watchman on the high seas. We are beyond having to put back what we have taken out. We must put back more than we take out. We must make holy war on the enemies of aquatic life as we have against gillnetters, polluters, and drainers of wetlands. Otherwise, as you have already learned, these creatures will continue to disappear at an accelerating rate. We will lose as much as we have already lost and there will be next to nothing, remnant populations, put-and-take, dimbulbs following the tank truck.

It is long past time to adopt that ethic if we are to protect what’s left of our natural world. And it applies whether we are fishers, hunters, hikers, or just urban types who walk in the park.

Memory and the Return of the Chum Salmon

Donkey Creek Chum Salmon

Distractions abound in contemporary society with the increasing depravity in most aspects of public life – think big time business, entertainment, politics, and sport.

And now that it’s December, the endless ads for luxury cars, snooping servants masquerading as home electronics, and Christmas music that has been playing in most malls and stores since August have driven out the joy of the season. Even Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present has said enough already.

In all of the above, there is no past or future – there is only the Now for only the Now has commercial or political utility. But even the cynical use of the Now as distraction can not, and must not, destroy memory: memory of cherished past; memory of history, and memory of one’s self.

And there is another type of memory. That is the memory of the natural world and its cycles that stretch back farther than human memory.

All it takes is looking outside.

Here in the Northwest, the annual salmon return is one such cycle. December brings its own gift with the return of the chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) to Donkey Creek.

The name of the creek has its origin in a lumber mill. After the nearby Austin mill was built in the early 1900s, a donkey engine transport system was used by loggers to move timber downstream to the mill. The building used for the engine was demolished in 2002 but logs from the building were salvaged and used in the siding of the restroom constructed in 2004.

Today, the park of the same name leads by a path to the Harbor History Museum. The path allows easy viewing of the creek. And it is in the creek in late November and December where there’s the best chance of seeing a returning chum salmon.

On their return and out of sight of the public, the fish are captured, bucks and hens are separated, and milk and eggs are extracted – the fish are dispatched with a quick bonk on the head. And then the life cycle of another generation of chum salmon begins.

Their life journey begins in the Donkey Creek Remote Site Incubator System (RSI). The RSI was installed by local fishermen in 1974 in cooperation with the State Department of Fish and Wildlife. The purpose was to restore the chum salmon run that had been severely depleted by road building and urbanization.

The RSI processes 1.3 million eggs every year — 1 million eggs are planted in Donkey Creek and about 300,000 are divided up between Meyers Creek and Purdy Creek.

The eggs and milk are mixed together in incubator buckets, with incubation lasting four months until about mid April. When they hatch they are called alevins. They spend six weeks maturing in the incubator buckets before losing their egg sacs. They then leave the barrels through a small pipe and go into a bigger pipe that runs in Donkey Creek. When they enter the creek they are called fry.

The fry slowly move into Gig Harbor and out into Puget Sound – finally reaching the open ocean in late summer. They move northward along the British Columbia coast until they reach their destination in the Gulf of Alaska, where they will remain for at least three years, with most returning in years four and five.

Their journey out and back means a journey of over 2000 miles plus the miles spent in the Gulf of Alaska. It is an incredible journey out of sight to us except at the very end when we can watch a salmon swim, with all its remaining strength, to reach its spawning ground for the singular purpose of creating the next generation. It is truly awe inspiring to watch.

Standing along Donkey Creek also provides an opportunity to see the cycles in our own lives – particularly when we understand that others stood where we are now.

The S’Homamish band of native Americans spent winters in a village known as Twalwelkax meaning “trout” at the mouth of Donkey Creek. The chum salmon migration was a source of food during the long cold winters. While they spent their winters along Donkey Creek, it’s probable the band migrated during the summer months to Vashon Island for there is archeological evidence of them there.

Little is known of the S’Homamish, except they were one of the bands that signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek in 1854, which exchanged 2.24 millions of land belonging to nine Indian tribes and bands to the United States for three reservations, cash payments, and recognition of fishing and hunting rights. By all accounts it was a swindle, just like all treaties signed with Native Americans.

The fishing rights were in dispute for over 120 years until the Boldt Decision of 1974, which reaffirmed the rights of Indian tribes and bands to act as co-managers of salmon and other fish as well as continue their harvesting according to the original treaties. By that time, the S’Homamish appear to have disappeared as a distinct band. Hopefully they joined another larger tribe and their descendants live to this day.

If they do, they preserve the memory of the life cycle of the chum salmon – as we should for it is a reminder of the great cycles of nature and our own place in it. I take comfort in that when the Now attempts to crush all memory.