By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter
The first time I fished the Chuit River was during the summer of 1971. I had the good fortune of people in my life that were willing to take an 11-year-old kid to such a magnificent place to fish, and it was incredible. In the later part of this summer I am going to fish the rivers of Southwestern Alaska for the first time. Both of these destinations are perhaps being threatened by development in the name of fossil fuel and mineral extraction.
Pebble Mine and the Chuitna Coal Mine are proposed development projects that potentially could have catastrophic affects on these wilderness areas. As an avid hunter and fisherman, and a conservative who understands the value of commerce, a share of my adult life has been one of torment. I have a deep affection for wild places and fervently hope they will always be part of the history of our country.
With that, I understand the driving force of the development of fossil fuels and minerals. I have commercial fished — drift boat, set net and long line — in Cook Inlet and understand the plight of those whose livelihood comes from those endeavors. On the other hand, the development of oil and natural gas in Alaska is the sole reason for the modest life I enjoy. If most Alaskans were to honestly evaluate where their salaries come from, oil would have to be the answer. One cannot claim otherwise if employed by the state of Alaska or the federal government, our largest employers in Alaska. Construction of virtually every bit of modern infrastructure in Alaska is due to the financial largesse created by the resource extraction industry.
Perhaps with the mindset of a simpleton, my first question when the Pebble and Chuitna coal projects came to the forefront under protest was, why is the Department of Natural Resources leasing property for development in these areas without first determining if such development is feasible or desirable? It truly baffles me. Be that as it may, it doesn’t help when I am trying to sort out in my mind where I stand on either of these projects.
The objection to Pebble Mine seems to come from two major factions. The commercial fishery that has utilized the resources provided by the Southwestern Alaska watershed for many years, and the “sport fish” groups who want to preserve the area so they can catch and release trophy rainbow trout to their heart’s content.
The commercial fishery has remained essentially the same for many years. Those plying this trade have done so primarily on the beaches and in the saltwater and have little impact on the inland grounds where the mine will be. The sport fishery, on the other hand, continues to encroach on this area with more and more anglers floating, boating or walking the river stretches.
While certainly not in the same magnitude of strip-mining across streams, sportfishing does have an impact and one need look no further than the Kenai River to witness it firsthand. Everywhere we explore and find something to keep us returning, be it for pleasure or for economic gain, we have an impact. I imagine the Native people who once freely caught and ate whatever fish they could to feed themselves, and wonder how the many regulations that allow only catch and release have impacted them. This disturbs me so much it is one of the reasons I’ve never gone to these places in the past. I’ve relented, as much as anything, to see firsthand what it is like.
The more I consider all of these things, the more confused and restless I am. The days I’ve spent in wild places that are essentially untouched by human development are the very best of days afield. On the other hand, I am guilty of utilizing the resources that are being sought as much as anyone. I drive and sometimes fly to places to embark on hunting or fishing adventures. The marvelous number of modern conveniences I enjoy every day impact the very resources sought after in these business adventures. So I wonder, does that make me a hypocrite if I oppose the development of these resources?
The government further confuses me with a recent document from the National Park Service that suggests the Lake Clark National Park should be expanded to include more campgrounds, better trails to various areas of the park, etc. Back in the 1970s we all swallowed the designation of these “parks” that significantly impacted our hunting grounds.
Over the years I have found some peace in thinking that it doesn’t hurt to have some acreage that is essentially untouchable. I have spent a fair amount of time in the Lake Clark area and found it to be a legitimate wilderness experience where one struck out and explored the country without benefit of infrastructure to support the exploration. That type of use does, in fact, leave little impact. The only thing that I can conceive that makes sense in these proposals is there isn’t enough commerce in this area and somehow we are not catering to those incapable of enjoying a wild place without someone first establishing a campground or a trail or an outhouse.
It seems our history as a country has been one of exploitation. We killed off the American bison and the plains antelope, we nearly market gunned our waterfowl into extinction, we didn’t just enter the country inhabited by Native Americans, we killed them, imprisoned them and then herded them into reservations and thought we somehow were right in doing so.
As I fret and fuss over these things, and really just want my grandchildren to have wild places to go to like I have enjoyed throughout my life, I have concluded that it doesn’t much matter what I think, or what anyone else thinks. The world population continues to grow, and so long as it does there will be demands on the planet that distress many of us. Sad as it is, as that continues, the demands we place on the planet will require the destruction of many more wild places. I suppose I am fortunate to be old enough that I will not live to see the end of it all.
Steve Meyer has been a central peninsula resident since 1971 and is an avid hunter, fisherman and trapper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.