Theo Chesley Noses his six-seat turboprop into a drizzly wind and levels off, soaring above the rich, silty veins of the Nushagak River in southwestern Alaska. The Nushagak is a salmon highway. To the west, its waters flow into Bristol Bay, home of the richest commercial-fishing grounds left in the U.S. About 40% of the wild seafood caught in the U.S. is fished right here.
To the northeast, however, something is growing that could change that. Some 100 miles upstream is the proposed site of what would be one of the largest mines in the world. The Pebble Mine, if it goes forward, could produce copper and gold worth more than $300 billion at current market prices. But opponents say its development poses a toxic threat to Bristol Bay's rich fishing grounds and to a way of life that dates back centuries. "There's a whole lot of land and water in harm's way," says Chesley, a salmon fisherman when he's not flying charters. "I'm not an environmentalist, but I do give a s___ about the land."
For most of Alaska's history, the environment has been an afterthought on the road to exploitation. From the arrival of Russian fur trappers in the 1780s, the Last Frontier has been a rich trove of resources. Today oil and natural gas provide more than 85% of the state's revenues, along with a royalty check for nearly every one of Alaska's 686,000 residents. "Being against development here is literally the third rail of politics," says Bryce Edgmon, an Alaska state representative from Bristol Bay.
Recently, however, a surprisingly diverse coalition has arisen to stop the Pebble Mine. Environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are making common cause with fishermen and native Alaskans who fear that pollution from the mine could ruin their livelihoods. Sustainability the idea that there are alternatives to exploiting natural resources without regard for the consequences is no longer such a suspicious term. "Do we want to embrace the mine, a resource that will be played out in 50 years?" says Verner Wilson, a Yupik Eskimo and Bristol Bay native who works with WWF. "Or do we want to embrace a resource like the fish that we can manage for thousands of years?"
It helps that fishing is what defines Bristol Bay. At the main port of Dillingham, the biggest news story of early summer is the catching of the first king salmon of the season. Bristol Bay's commercial fishermen including the stars of the Discovery Channel reality show The Deadliest Catch net hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of seafood. But everyone fishes Todd Palin, Alaska's First Dude and a Dillingham native, has a reserved spot on a local beach.
Those opposed to the mine argue that tailings and other discharges from the Pebble project will contaminate nearby waters and harm the sensitive salmon that swim upstream to spawn. The mining industry argues that Pebble can be developed without serious risk to the environment. "We're conducting one of the largest environmental-study programs in Alaska's history," notes John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, which is overseeing the project. Moreover, the Pebble Mine offers the potential for new jobs which are vitally needed in a region where steady employment can be hard to find, especially for Alaskan natives. "It's a battle between traditional culture and the modern world," says Ralph Anderson, president of the Bristol Bay Native Association. "I don't know if we can reconcile them."
For now, the future of the Pebble Mine is still up in the air. A ballot initiative designed in part to stop the mine failed at the polls last summer, but the project is only in its exploratory stages. Either way, Alaskans are beginning to realize that unchecked resource exploitation can't last forever. "There has to be an alternative view that we can help the community with an environmental economy," says Terry Hoefferle, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai, an anti-Pebble group. Even the Last Frontier has its ecological limits.