It’s the usual struggle… the fight to preserve the dwindling natural beauty and what’s left of the planet’s pristine environment vs. the opportunity to tap some more holes in Mother Nature’s skull to extract minerals needed to feed the industrial world’s technology addiction and the corporate world’s insatiable thirst for profits.
Northern Dynasty Minerals, the company that owns the mineral rights to the area known as Pebble Mine, 200 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska has spent millions of dollars in exploratory drilling. They plan to operate the largest open-pit gold, copper, and molybdenum mine in North America. However, in the latest clash between those seeking to preserve the environment and proponents of this multi-million dollar mining project in an area unspoiled by human development in southwestern Alaska, the typical alignment of players has been skewed.
Native Americans in southwestern Alaska (and throughout North America), who have been fighting against the rape and pillaging of their natural habitat ever since the arrival of the European conquerors, are now engaged in a fight for the very survival of their culture. In place of their age-old self-sufficiency in tune with their natural surroundings, where hunting, fishing, and trading ensured sustainability, they have come to be dependent on the traditional western economic corporate model.
Decent paying jobs are the drug of choice and in these days of high unemployment, this region has been especially hard hit. The Alaskan Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimates unemployment on the rise in southwestern Alaska, reaching as high as 13.6% in April, significantly above the already way too high national average of 9.1%.
So when the Pebble Mine project came to town, some in the Native American community, as expressed by the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) came out in support of “responsible resource development.” BBNC, one of 13 Regional Corporations formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 is a Native American investment company whose business holdings include oilfield services and petroleum distribution. According to their website, their mission is “Enriching our Native way of life.” In an interview on National Public Radio, Alaskan native, Trefon Angasan summed it up by saying,
“There are no jobs and schools are closing. And once the schools close the people move away and the village doesn’t grow and then people have lost their language. They’ve lost their culture.”
To add additional irony to the mix, Bob Gillam, one of Alaska’s richest men has been subsidizing a campaign to stop the drilling operations – he provided the money to successfully get the anti-mining issue on the ballot, where it recently passed by a slim margin.
Gillam made his fortune as many have in recent years, i.e., not through production of real goods but rather through trading investments on a global scale – and in today’s digital world he’s able to do so from the comfort of his reclusive Alaskan compound while “phoning it in” to his offices on Wall St. He is known to enjoy flying his floatplane across the wilderness stopping to hunt and fish in the vast, unspoiled stretches that still remain in Alaska’s backcountry. Gillam feels,
“This mine will dig up miles of salmon-producing creeks and rivers. And that’s exactly what the Save Our Salmon Initiative is all about.”
Finally, Alaskan Attorney General John Burns is suing the municipality claiming the referendum was unconstitutional on the grounds that decisions about allocation of natural resources rest with the state legislature, not local government. The lawsuit stated,
The Alaska Constitution gives the Alaska Legislature the authority to determine how to develop resources for maximum use consistent with the public interest. It is therefore the state’s duty to evaluate projects to determine whether they can be conducted in a way that serves the public interest, and if so, what safeguards to require.
Attorney General Burns had the chutzpah to claim that their position should not be interpreted as supporting one position over the other. Yeah, right… and if you believe that I’ve got a certain bridge to nowhere you might be interested in.
So that was to be the end of this piece on the ironic complexities that populate the political landscape. But as the story developed, that is to say as I got up to speed on what’s really going on, it became more clear to me that it was not a story about strange bedfellows at all.
According to the minutes of an appearance he made at a hearing of the Alaskan State Legislature, House Resources Standing Committee, in February 2006, Angason is on the mining company’s payroll. “He has a contract with Northern Dynasty who [sic] hired him to connect the company to the people and to perform outreach to the communities.” In discussing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent effort to gather data and assess the environmental impacts, Angason told the NY Times, “We know then that whatever they invoke in the Bristol Bay watershed would stymie whatever benefits we would have received through our own land ownership into the future.”
Angason is also a board member of Nuna Resources, Inc., a non-profit Native American lobbying organization. Abe Williams, president of Nuna Resources told the Bristol Bay Times,
“We want to do something that will provide jobs in the region year round, and that comes on the cusp of supporting responsible resource development through due process, not just Pebble.”
According to the Bristol Bay Times, Williams, a resident of King Salmon, is also the president of Paug-Vik Corp., an Alaska Native corporation based in Naknek, whose subsidiary, Paug-Vik Development Corp., offers a range of construction and environmental services in rural Alaska.
Speaking on behalf of the Newhalen Alaskan Native American tribe, Tribal Council President (and yes, Nuna Resources board member) Raymond Wassillie, stated it succinctly, “I like employment. Employment makes a happy village.” Another board member, Lisa Reimers, is the chief executive officer of the Iliamna Development Corp., which receives funding from The Pebble Partnership. According to their website, The Pebble Limited Partnership was created in 2007 by co-owners Northern Dynasty and Anglo-American plc to design, permit, construct and operate a modern, long-life mine at Pebble.
The Partnership is led by CEO John Shively — a former Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources under Sarah Palin and senior executive with the Native American NANA Regional Corporation (partners in the Red Dog zinc mine, in northwest Alaska). Shively has put together a team including Vice President of Environment Ken Taylor, a former Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game in the Palin administration to move the Pebble Project towards permitting and realization.
In reading about all of the Native American development companies that sprang up as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and the former politicians working as paid lobbyists on behalf of the mining company, I am reminded of the fall of the former Soviet Union. In both cases, a few high-ranking politicians swooped in to fill the vacuum and became instant capitalists, maintaining control through economic rather than political power. So, this is one hell of a tangled web where the pieces eventually do fit together to form a classic tale of corrupt self-interest masquerading as altruism.
In the famous words of Deep Throat, leading Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to the heart of the Watergate scandal, “Just follow the money.” You just can’t make this stuff up.