State officials hosted a public meeting on a controversial salmon habitat ballot initiative in Bethel on Tuesday. The salmon habitat ballot initiative would toughen the permitting process for proposed projects built on salmon habitat, and could hinder the development of the proposed Donlin mine. The Donlin mine could be one of the biggest gold mines in the world if built, and would be located in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Fifteen people testified at the hearing, and only two spoke against the measure. Alex Nick was in the minority. He has lived in Bethel for 20 years after moving from the village of Russian Mission. He’s ambivalent about the measure’s impact on the Donlin mine, but he does worry about the consequences for smaller projects in the region.
"Because the fact of this day is that there is salmon in every drainage, and the permit system will not do good for the area and it might expand to harvest of fisheries," Nick said.
But the rest of the crowd testified in favor of the measure. Mary Peltola is the Executive Director of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. On Tuesday, she only spoke for herself as a subsistence fisherwoman.
"Since 2010 we’ve seen our runs really, really diminish," Peltola said.
Peltola says that the salmon habitat ballot initiative will not bring back the salmon, but it would make sure that there are not further stresses on the fish from man-made projects. Representatives from other villages like Akiak and Kwethluk also testified in favor of the initiative, and so did one of the founders of a local working group that opposes the Donlin mine.
Most people in the crowd supported the ballot measure because of its salmon protections. For many of them, salmon harvested from the river is a huge part of their diet. A representative from Stand for Alaska - Vote No on One, a group that opposes the ballot measure, also testified. The group’s chair, Marleanna Hall, said that the ballot initiative is too vague and too broad.
"In the Yukon-Kuskokwim area, the lack of infrastructure is a reality and this ballot will hinder building or improving roads and other much needed projects around the state," Hall said.
Donlin Gold, the company trying to develop the mine, has repeatedly said that the measure would hurt the project. The company is one of Stand For Alaska-Vote No on One’s biggest supporters. Donlin Gold contributed $1.2 million to fight the salmon habitat ballot initiative. The Calista Regional Native Corporation, which owns the subsurface rights to the mine, also supports Stand For Alaska - Vote No on One.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott presided over the meeting on Tuesday. He told KYUK that he’s neutral on the initiative, but Gov. Bill Walker, who is up for re-election with Mallott, has expressed concerns with the ballot measure.
The state is holding nine public hearings throughout Alaska about the salmon habitat ballot initiative. The final one will be a teleconference on October 13 for any Alaskan who missed the previous meetings.