Proposed Alaska mine threatens world’s top sockeye runs
Students enrolled at Gonzaga University often sprout some of their roots on campus, but Lange Solberg, a third generation commercial fisherman, is sowing a homegrown international controversy.
Solberg is taking time from his senior studies in Spanish and international business to help organize a public program on the threats a proposed mega-mine pose to southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region and the most prolific salmon runs in the world.
“The university’s Thematic Programming Committee this year is focusing on water quality and water rights on a global scale,” he said. “This issue nails that theme.”
The free event, Tuesday, 7 p.m., at Cataldo Hall, centers on “Red Gold,” a 55-minute documentary on the potential economic prizes and environmental hazards of the Pebble Mine.
The film, made by two college-age Colorado filmmakers, has been striking a chord with anglers and even broader audiences since it debuted last year. It won the Audience Choice award at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival and the People’s Choice award at the 2008 Banff Festival of Mountain films.
It was shown in Spokane in November during the Banff festival’s world tour.
However, the panel discussion and audience participation set to follow Tuesday’s free screening is a unique opportunity to go beyond the emotion the documentary generates.
“This will the film’s debut in an academic setting,” Solberg said. “This will be a rare opportunity to speak in person with people who are in the thick of this.”
The panel will include Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively, representing those promoting the mine. A long-time Alaska businessman and government official, Shively left his position as vice president of government and community relations for Holland America Line to head PPC. He’s also held positions as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources as well as chief of staff to former Gov. Bill Sheffield and a spokesman for an Alaskan native group.
The panel also will include Lisa Reimers of the Iliamna Development Corporation, Norman Van Vactor of a commercial fishing cooperative and Mark Taylor of Washington Trout Unlimited.
The issue has plenty of drama as economic interests want to tap what could be the largest deposits of copper and gold in the world in the same watershed with the world’s largest intact sockeye salmon spawning region and Alaska’s largest king salmon runs.
Some 40 million sockeye return to this region every June and July, helping to generate nearly $400 million in the sport and commercial fisheries.
Pebble Mine proponents say their development would generate more than $350 billion and hundreds of jobs during the life of the mine.
“I was raised in Bellingham, but my father and our family has fished up there for 49 years,” Solberg said. “I’m third-generation. I love Bristol Bay and I love Alaska. It’s time the business community, not just fishermen, to take a look at this.”
The open-pit mine would be one of the largest in the world, reaching close to a mile deep and covering up to four square miles, he said, adding that chemical tailings would be contained in a lake and held back by what would be the world’s largest earthen dam.
“The real fight is in Alaska, but these big Alaska issues have a way of becoming national and international issues,” Solberg said.