Fool’s Gold

Last month the Environmental Protection Agency released its newest assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.  The proposed gold, copper, and molybdenum mine would be the largest open pit mine in the world.  It would also be located in the world’s most productive remaining salmon run. 

The mine would be sited at the headwaters of the Koktuli and Nushagak rivers, which together account for 25% of the world’s sockeye salmon production.  All five species of Pacific salmon found in North America are supported by the surrounding ecosystems.  The conclusion of the EPA’s newest report is that these fisheries would be irreversibly damaged if the mine goes forward.  That conclusion makes the tradeoff we’ve discussed before, between development and environmental protection, very stark.  Indeed, despite the claims of the mine supporters, the EPA report makes it clear that the options are mining or fishing.  Not both.


The tradeoff between the environment and development that Alaska now faces is one that many communities have faced before.  Even the stunningly high value of the biodiversity and species that call Bristol Bay home is not unique in the history of these decisions.  What makes this case unique is the unusually monetiziable value of the species in Bristol Bay.  Because salmon is such an important commercial fish, the environmental value of the habitat is easily translated into dollar terms.

In many other cases where communities face a development versus environment trade-off, the benefits and costs shake out neatly onto each side of the debate.  On the development side there is economic growth, employment opportunities, and substantial income for the community.  On the environmental side there is preservation of heritage, protection of ecologically valuable species, and stewardship of nature.   There is little cross-over or grey area.  Development brings money while environmental protection brings nothing.  The community must therefore choose between making a living and maintaining the environment.  Even in cases where doing both might theoretically be possible – through tourism dollars generated by a unique environmental feature for example – development offers a larger, and crucially, more certain, source of income.

The case of Bristol Bay is different.  The presence of the salmon fishery means that the local communities, and the state of Alaska, already have a source of income.  The costs and benefits don’t fit as neatly on each side of the debate.  Rather, both sides offer employment and income.  The salmon fishery is a renewable source of revenue that generates $480 million annually and employs over 11,000 workers at the height of the season. True, the mine is projected to generate $1 billion in economic activity and is expected to create 4,490 jobs over the next 30 years.  But this is obviously not a situation in which the community must choose between poverty and development.

For this reason the continued debate over Pebble Mine bears watching.  Locals overwhelmingly oppose the project – Senator Begich of Alaska claims he has received more than ten times as many letters opposing the project as supporting it – but the value of the minerals in the ground is substantial – by some measures over $300 billion.  Yet, someday that value will be exhausted and when it is there will be nothing left for the community.  Contrast that with the fact that the salmon runs have been producing for more than 4,000 years.  Committing to the mine will generate much higher incomes in the short run but it is an irreversible commitment.  As the EPA report shows, once the fisheries are destroyed they will not return.  The fisheries offer a lower short-term income but they provide one that is sustainable and whose benefits are diffuse.

The Pebble Mine case turns the traditional narrative of economic growth in opposition to environmental protection on its head.  Yes, the mine offers higher short-term incomes but rejecting the mine will not impoverish the surrounding communities.  Rather, rejecting the mine demonstrates how communities can sustainably manage their environment to both protect it and generate a sustainable livelihood.  Doing so would set an important precedent where lower value but sustainable income flows from an ecosystem were given precedence over higher but short-term profits made by destroying it.

Image Credit: Dubhe via Wikimedia Commons


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