Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is In Excellent Condition, But Could That Be Jepodarized By Mining Interests?

While Lake Clark National Park and Preserve epitomizes wilderness at its best, a proposed mining development just outside the park's southwestern corner could upset that setting. Top, NPS photo of Silver Salmon Lakes near Lake Clark, bottom NPCA graphic.

When Dick Proenneke fled to Alaska in 1967, he headed to a remote, rugged, and incredibly beautiful wilderness. Today that setting -- Lake Clark National Park and Preserve -- continues to be remote, rugged, and incredibly beautiful. While a National Parks Conservation Association analysis of impacts to the park and its resources out today shows it's in excellent condition, overall, the prospect of mining just outside the park poses a significant threat to Lake Clark's resources.

Mr. Proenneke wasn't a greenhorn when he vanished into the Alaskan wilderness. He was a talented craftsman and modern-day mountain man who used his own two hands to build a cabin on Upper Twin Lake that served as his home, amazingly, until 1998.

Today, thankfully, the park that grew up around Upper Twin Lake, remains just about as wild and rugged as it was during Mr. Proenneke's stay there. But that's not to say there aren't potential threats to this setting. A copper, gold, and molybdenum mine called Pebble is proposed to be developed just 14 miles beyond the preserve portion of Lake Clark's southwestern boundary, and it has spawned a land rush that since 2003 has seen some 1,000 square miles of state lands adjacent to the park staked with mining claims.

According to NPCA officials, development of those claims "is the single greatest threat to the integrity of the park’s resources, including the region’s abundant fish and wildlife and the rural lifestyles enjoyed by local subsistence users and community based commercial fishermen. Future mining prospects are anchored by an exceptionally large deposit of copper and gold, called the Pebble Mine. ... the mine is predicted to be a catalyst for industrialization in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, a move which could seriously degrade air and downstream water quality, fragment salmon and wildlife habitat, and diminish the backcountry wilderness experience that is central to the area’s tourism and sporting industries."

For now, though, the park's resources are among the best, if not the best, of those in parks monitored by NPCA's Center for State of the Parks staff. Overall, the staff gave the park's natural resources a 91 rating (out of 100), and its cultural resources an 84 rating, the highest any park has received so far. Only two of the more than 50 other parks assessed by the Center for State of the Parks received higher natural resources scores -- Denali National Park and Preserve and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

What's important to keep in mind, points out the NPCA report, is that Lake Clark's waters are "a freshwater spawning destination for a genetically-unique portion of Bristol Bay’s wild salmon run."

Too, the small communities that can be found close to the park rely greatly on hunting, fishing, and tourism in general for their livelihoods. Some among those locals fear what development of a mine would bring to their end of the world.

“There aren’t any examples around the world where a large open-pit mine and a vibrant tourism industry coexist,” Dan Oberlatz, a longtime Lake Clark backcountry tour operator, told NPCA. “It’s never been done.”

The National Parks Conservation Association, along with many commercial and sport fishermen, Alaska Native tribes, and other stakeholders, oppose the large-scale industrial Pebble Mine project. The chief concern is that building and operating the largest open-pit mine in North America in the fragile headwaters of Bristol Bay—the world’s most prolific sockeye salmon fishery—will pollute the region’s abundant and interlaced surface and groundwaters and will irreparably harm the salmon spawning habitat, resident fisheries, and local economies based upon clean waters. Caribou, moose, and migratory birds may also be affected by on-going exploration activities and future developments.

Compounding the potential threat looming on state of Alaska lands is the fact that in December 2008 the Bush administration had the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approve "a plan to open more than 1 million acres of federal public lands in the Bristol Bay watershed to mining, a move that could multiply the prospects of additional mineral deposits being developed and compound the impacts of a future mining district on lands near Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks," says the NPCA report. "Predicted mining impacts at Lake Clark include degraded air and water quality (with associated impacts on fisheries), encroachment into fish and wildlife habitat, disturbance and displacement of wildlife and birds, increased competition for subsistence and/or sport resources from new residents and mine workers, and diminishment of the visitor experience (due to a loss of wilderness character)."

Now, understandably, those behind the Pebble Mine extol its potential for Alaskans and believe it can be developed in an environmentally sound manner.

"Pebble is currently the focus of an extensive scientific research program to gather the environmental, social and cultural information necessary to responsibly develop the project. For the Pebble Partnership, responsible development means Pebble will protect and respect all of Alaska's natural resources – particularly its fish and wildlife," reads the company's website.

"To date, The Pebble Partnership has invested more than $100 million on environmental and socioeconomic studies to guide the development of a project plan that will be submitted for government and public review in the years ahead," the partnership says elsewhere on the site. "These multi-disciplinary studies are being conducted with the assistance of approximately 50 independent consulting firms. Additional studies are currently under way.

"Environmental baseline studies are the cornerstone of environmental planning at the Pebble Project. Data collected from these rigorous studies provide the basis for understanding how the natural environment in the project area works, and why it works the way it does. This baseline knowledge is essential to determine how the project can be responsibly developed and managed without compromising fisheries and other valued natural resources in the Bristol Bay region.

"Upon study completion, a comprehensive Environmental Baseline Document (EBD) will be prepared and appended to future project permit applications. The EBD will also be made publicly available when complete."

Melissa Blair, the NPCA's Alaska field representative, told the Traveler on Monday that her group would like to see an independent organization review the environmental aspect of the project before a decision is made on the mining permit since those for the project contend it can be done without significantly impacting the environment while those opposed maintain that it can't be.

"One thing we’re looking for and hoping for is that we can get the National Academy of Sciences involved, to take this as a project to review," said Ms. Blair, explaining that the potential threats are too great not to exert the most care in reviewing the project.

“The lack of access to this remote area has inhibited development of these resources,” she said. "In order for Pebble to go through a road system and a haul system and an ore transport system would have to be built, all these things that would be needed to run a massive mine of this scale.”

While no one denies there's a need for minerals in today's world, Ms. Blair acknowledged, there are some places where mining just shouldn't be permitted.

“I think that the people of the region recognize that minerals are important, but the clean waters and the wild salmon habitat is the No. 1 priority," she said. "So the renewable resource-based economies, both the commercial fishing, sport fishing, tourism and traditional subsistence lifestyle, is something they’re incredibly concerned about losing.”

Alaska casts this image of ruggedness, of pristine air and water, of lands roamed by wolves, bears, caribou and other wildlife. The state harbors a landscape that's much disappeared from the Lower 48 states, one that can't be replicated. Against that setting, NPCA officials believe the potential threats of mining on the doorstep of a national park are too great.

“Alaska is often considered our last chance to do things ‘the right way’,” says MS. Blair. “In the case of Bristol Bay, doing things ‘the right way’ means embracing clean waters, wild salmon, and traditional lifestyles - the exact values that led to the designation of Lake Clark and Katmai national parks in the region’s headwaters. The track record of industrial mining has not been kind to rivers or wild salmon, and the fact that the Pebble mining district is being planned so close to our phenomenal national parks is very concerning."

Dick Proenneke no doubt would agree.