The salmon season is behind us, and ahead of us, too. That’s the way nature works—it’s the way life sustains and nourishes itself.
Our progress-centric worldview often forgets that, and makes us believe that things move in a straight line going only in one direction—“forward”—as if “forward” means something beyond our human measure of time.
I’ve been thinking about how Bristol Bay, Alaska, reminds us of the story of life, and about how telling that story helps us learn, remember and adapt, and of course return to what we know matters most.
Every year the salmon return to Bristol Bay—for years now in record numbers—and these fish in turn feed a vast and complex living system that nourishes itself through cycles. Human decisions circle back, too.
This month, we got great news when the Environmental Protection Agency requested that the Alaska District Court remand an EPA decision that we took to court back to the agency. The lawsuits filed in October 2019 charged the agency with withdrawing its proposed protections for Bristol Bay without scientific or factual justification.
The district court dismissed the case without deciding the claim. It ended up in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the case should move forward for a decision on the merits. Settlement discussions ensued, resulting in EPA’s recent request.
I guess you can say we’re almost back to where we were in 2016, with the EPA potentially resuming a process that could mean better and more enduring protections for a place that has provided food, a home, and a cultural foundation to people for millennia.
Human decision-making tends to circle back just as life cycles do, but people too often fail to work toward nurturing outcomes that benefit the many over long arcs of time. Unlike nature, which accommodates many life forms in interrelated systems and complex relationships that allow ecosystems to thrive–as in Bristol Bay–human decisions tend to fixate on shorter time scales and on concepts and values that benefit a very few, resulting in the hoarding of so much wealth and power that it creates precarious living for the rest, and threatens life long after the money’s gone.
We and our partners have worked to stop Pebble since 2004. We filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Pebble’s exploration activities in 2009, charging the Alaska Department of Natural Resources with issuing permits without giving Alaskans a chance to participate in whether such a huge mining project should be allowed at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in our favor in 2015.
Meanwhile, Tribes and Alaska communities asked the EPA to initiate a process under the Clean Water Act to protect the region, and the agency started that process in 2014. That three-year process resulted in a twice-peer reviewed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment and a proposal to protect the area from large-scale mining.
Not long after, Trump’s EPA rolled back that proposal and then, in 2020, its Army Corps of Engineers surprisingly denied permits for the mine.
Sometimes it feels like we’ve got whiplash from riding a roller coaster on a chattering track built of all the political influence money can buy.
Yet, year after year nature tells us something that those who seem to value wealth over livelihoods and ways of life and the health of animals and people cannot. It tells us that it alone gives and sustains life.
So here we are, back to an EPA process that could protect Bristol Bay and maybe even inspire Alaska’s elected officials to push for a more enduring law that ensures the health of Bristol Bay salmon and communities. The thing is, we need to heed what nature tells us, and make decisions that nourish and sustain life.
We need to get protections in place so that Bristol Bay communities can stop having to fight for their ways of life and livelihoods and for the health of the place they call home.
Vicki Clark, executive director
PS. Thanks to supporters like you, we can continue fighting to protect Alaska’s land, water, air, wildlife and people!