The 13-year battle for Bristol Bay reached a triumphant culmination on January 30, 2023. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency invoked its Clean Water Act 404(c) authority and vetoed the Pebble Mine project. This action marks the third time in 30 years—and only the fourteenth time in the history of the Clean Water Act—that the EPA has exercised this authority.
The contested dominion over one of our world’s greatest wilderness areas garnered support from a unique bipartisan coalition throughout Alaska and across the nation. Galvanized by thousands of years of Indigenous stewardship and sustainable management, the exploitive mining project led by Pebble Limited Partnership was confronted with unyielding protest from local Tribes and municipalities, politicians on both sides of the aisle, NGOs and nonprofits, commercial and recreational fishermen and nature travel companies and visiting tourists.
After decades of fighting on the frontlines, these champions have secured a future for the lands and waters of Bristol Bay and the wildlife and people they sustain.
Conservationists Celebrate Pebble Mine Victory
“The people of Bristol Bay have always been stewards of our lands and natural resources with traditional ecological knowledge passed on from generation to generation since time immemorial. Today is a day for celebration with gratitude to EPA, as well as the people of Bristol Bay for being engaged in the process to have our voices heard, and thank you to everyone who has supported our region over the past two decades,” proclaimed Bristol Bay Native Association President and CEO Garvin Federenko.
Executive Director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay Alannah Hurley, echoed this sentiment:
“On behalf of UTBB, I’d like to say quyana, chin’an, thank you to the EPA and the Biden Administration ngot just for this decision, but for working throughout this 404(c) process to consult with our Tribes. EPA’s action today helps us build the future where our people can remain Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq for generations to come.”
Get to Know Bristol Bay
View this post on Instagram
The Bristol Bay region in southwest Alaska stretches for 40,000 square miles across arctic tundra and braided wetlands, connecting diverse aquatic habitats that support a dizzying array of wildlife and two of the last intact salmon-based cultures in the world—the Yup’ik and Dena’ina Athabascan. The Bristol Bay watershed, roughly the size of West Virginia, is nestled between two national parks (Katmai and Lake Clark) and is an area of unparalleled ecological, cultural and economic value.
Bristol Bay’s clean, oxygen-rich waters are spawning sites for all five species of wild Pacific salmon: sockeye, coho (silver), chinook (king), pink (humpie) and chum. Approximately 40 million sockeye make the perilous journey each year—making it the world’s largest run. The watershed also supplies the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, producing half of the world’s sockeye and supporting 15,000 jobs annually. In 2019 alone, the total economic value of the watershed’s salmon resources, including subsistence uses, surpassed $2.2 billion.
View this post on Instagram
Forests Built on the Backs of Bears
Pacific salmon share a reciprocal relationship with their environment, enriching riparian ecosystems with essential marine-based nutrients when they complete their lifecycle. As the bodies of spawning salmon break down, nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon become available to streamside vegetation. Several studies reveal that in some cases, up to 80% of the nitrogen in streamside shrubs and trees is of salmon origin. For instance, the growth of Sitka spruce, a dominant streamside tree in Alaska, is three times greater along salmon streams than along non-salmon streams.
Ecologists Scott M. Gende and Thomas P. Quinn conducted a multi-year study and confirmed that bear foraging behavior is connected to the amount of salmon-derived nutrients received by terrestrial plants. Alaska’s coastal brown bears (Ursus arctos) are the largest brown bears and require a high caloric intake of food—consuming 80–90 pounds per day in the summer and fall.
Brown bears catch approximately 50–70% of spawning salmon each year; however, they feed selectively on the most energy-rich parts of the fish, ingesting as little as 25% of their kill. They dispose of the remaining carcasses on the forest floor, nourishing a diverse community of invertebrate scavengers and more than 80 species of terrestrial vertebrates, from insectivorous song birds to wolves.
The brown bears in Bristol Bay are true ecosystem engineers, and with wild salmon disappearing globally due to climate change and unsustainable anthropogenic activity, this watershed is a place of particular international importance.
Native Alaskan Peoples
The ecosystem services provided by salmon and bears are especially appreciated by Alaska’s Native population. Bristol Bay is home to more than 25 federally-recognized Tribes and communities. The Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq are intrinsically tied to the health and well-being of the watershed. Wild salmon comprises 52% of the average Native family’s diet—that’s roughly 2.4 million pounds of wild salmon annually.
In addition to salmon, caribou, moose, marine mammals, game birds and wild plants and berries comprise the main subsistence foods for Bristol Bay residents. The value of subsistence harvest by Alaskan Natives is worth between $77.8 million and $143.1 million.
The Dena’ina phrase Ye’uh gach’dalts’iyi means “what we live on from the outdoors.” It refers to Indigenous knowledge practices that have been passed down over generations and teach the importance of coexistence between human and nonhuman life forms. Seasonal cycles of hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering are a vital component of evolving lifeways and serve as an unbroken link to Native Alaskan ancestry.
Land conversion for industrial resource extraction and commercial development is a growing threat to Alaska’s biological and cultural integrity. Climate change is continuing to alter the distribution and abundance of wildlife populations.
Consequently, berry patches— which hold cultural significance to Tribes and are a significant source of food for bears—are suffering; waterfowl and caribou migrations are shifting; moose habitat is being forced to expand northward; and sea ice and access to marine mammals are decreasing. If community elders are not able to pass down their traditional way of life to the youth, Alaska’s Tribes could one day disappear too.
A Brief History of the Pebble Project
Located at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers (two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay) and underlying portions of the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds is a massive deposit of precious-metal ores and molybdenum-bearing minerals valued at several hundred billion dollars.
Pebble Limited Partnership sought to extract the deposit by digging an open-pit mine and constructing a power plant and pipeline for the gas to fuel it, as well as an access road and a port. But the 2023 Final Determination by the EPA dissolved PLP’s proposal, effectively blocking what would have been one of the largest mines in the world.
This landmark conservation decision was catalyzed in 2010 when Bristol Bay’s Tribes, sportfishing groups and commercial fishermen first formally petitioned the EPA to enact their judicial power to protect the pristine watershed. Their request prompted the EPA to conduct the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. Released on May 18, 2012, this 339-page scientific report outlined the inevitable catastrophes and reverberating impacts that would result from mining the region’s Pebble deposit.
Key findings from the assessment included:
- A mine the size of the Pebble deposit will eliminate or block up to 87 miles of salmon streams and remove or bury up to 4,200 acres of wetlands.
- At minimum size, mining the Pebble deposit would create a more than 1,300-acre mine pit, a 3,600-acre tailings compound behind a 685-foot high earthen dam and another 2,300-acre waste rock pile.
- Bristol Bay’s wild salmon fishery and other natural resources provide at least 14,000 full and part-time jobs and is valued at about $480 million annually.
- The average annual run of sockeye salmon is about 37.5 million fish.
In 2014, the EPA released a Proposed Determination to limit mining on the basis that it would cause irreversible damage. More than 1.5 million comments were submitted across the country—85.9% of which were in support of strong protections for Bristol Bay. In 2019, despite an abundance of public fervor, the EPA under the Trump administration sought to withdraw the determination.
In response, Trout Unlimited, the nation’s oldest and largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization, challenged the EPA’s decision in court, alleging the action was capricious and contrary to the Clean Water Act’s governing standard. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Trout Unlimited in July 2021. Following the lawsuit, the conservation organization doubled down on its advocacy efforts with the help of Save Bristol Bay, their campaign to unite Alaskan communities with a shared vision for environmental justice and cultural preservation.
View this post on Instagram
In May 2022, the EPA issued a revised Proposed Determination that reflected the analysis of new scientific data. That summer, more than a half a million comments were submitted in support of the finalization of 404(c) protections for the watershed. In December 2022, World Wildlife Fund, with their partners at The Conservation Fund and other members of the Bristol Bay Victory Challenge, established a 44,000-acre conservation easement safeguarding four of the world’s most important rivers for salmon habitat.
These easements will permanently protect land owned by the Pedro Bay Corporation, which comprises more than 200 shareholders of Aleut, Yupik and Athabascan descent. They will also ensure the financial independence of Alaska Natives by securing their corporation’s profitability long-term.
EPA’s Final Determination
The Final Determination comes just six months after the Bristol Bay region set a new record with 79 million sockeye salmon returning to its waters—a testament to the long-term viability of the watershed and the life it supports. The proposed mine site would result in the permanent loss of approximately:
- 5 miles of anadromous fish streams.
- 91 miles of additional streams that support anadromous fish streams.
- 2,108 acres of wetlands and other waters in the South Fork Koktuli River and North Fork Koktuli River watersheds that support anadromous fish streams.
These discharges would also result in streamflow alterations that would adversely affect approximately 29 miles of additional anadromous fish streams downstream of the mine site.
As outlined by the EPA, the Final Determination:
- Prohibits using the South Fork Koktuli River and North Fork Koktuli River watersheds as disposal sites for the discharge of dredged or fill material for the construction and routine operation of the 2020 Mine Plan. This includes future proposals to develop the Pebble deposit that would result in the same or greater levels of aquatic resource loss or streamflow changes as the 2020 Mine Plan.
- Restricts the use of certain waters of the United States in the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds as disposal sites for the discharge of dredged or fill material associated with future proposals to construct and operate a mine to develop the Pebble deposit.
Looking to the Future
“Today’s decision is a milestone, but it’s not the end of the road,” Russell Nelson, chair of Bristol Bay Native Corporation, said. “There’s still work to be done to make sure that Bristol Bay’s cultures and fishing-based economy are protected. We look to begin work with our congressional delegation in the coming months on federal legislation that will provide broader protections for the important watersheds in the region.”
“It’s upon us to teach our grandchildren to continue the fight to make sure that resource stays locked up. There’s people that are greedy in this world and they would do anything to make money off a resource like that,” Nelson emphasized.
Thank You Nat Hab & WWF Staff, Travelers & Supporters!
Bristol Bay generates billions of dollars for the local economy and tourism is one of the greatest contributors. Natural Habitat Adventures shares a special history with Alaska, and stopping Pebble Mine has been one of our most impassioned priorities. Nat Hab President and Founder Ben Bressler expresses his gratitude with the following statement:
“I want to extend a personal thank-you to you, our travelers—who share our passion for conservation—for the important role you played. The EPA received over 4 million comments against the Pebble Mine in the last 13 years, and no doubt plenty of them were from Nat Hab travelers. Your efforts have paid off. The Pebble Mine defeat shows the power of tenacity when it comes to conservation work. Alaska’s bears are protected—thanks in large part to you!”
We extend further thanks to our Travel Partner WWF. Their supporters—650,000 over the course of many years—stepped up to sign petitions aimed at stopping the disastrous mining project.
“The opposition to the proposed mine was very diverse. My role was coordinating those who opposed the mine based on what it would potentially do to bear populations, bear habitat, the bear viewing industry or anything relating to bears, really. That part of Alaska—which encompasses western Cook Inlet and the headwaters of the Bristol Bay system—is home to the most densely populated bear habitat on earth,” Hamilton says.
“Not to mention that these are the most famous bears on the planet!” he continues. “They are the stars of Disney movies, countless documentaries, viral videos and Alaska’s homegrown bear-viewing industry. Every year, Katmai National Park’s “Fat Bear Week” elevates the bears of Bristol Bay to obese ambassadors for their species, exposing their existence to millions of people who otherwise might never have know about Bristol Bay and its important salmon runs.”
View this post on Instagram
“Translating these bears’ contributions to the economy of south-central Alaska runs the totals into the millions. The opposition to the mine on the bear front started when Pebble released their plan to get the ore out of the mine site and transport it via ice breaking ferry, road, boats, and ships via a route that took them right next door to the traditional largest seasonal congregation of bears at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. With the scale of their proposed road infrastructure, industrial port and power plant, versus the sheer number of bears in the area, conflict was inevitable.”
View this post on Instagram
“When humans and bears come to conflict in this way, the bears always lose. This proposal congealed opposition to the mine on many fronts as it took the proposed mine from an abstract threat to a threat knocking on the front door. The EPA’s Determination earlier this week just substantiates what so many people have known for so long; the proposed Pebble Mine was the “wrong mine in the wrong place.” The idea was so bad from the get-go, that it unified people and groups who traditionally haven’t seen eye to eye.”
This video featuring Drew illustrates what our planet would have lost with the construction of Pebble Mine:
If you’ve been inspired by the conservation efforts detailed in this story, please consider taking the following actions: