The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to ban and restrict mining of the huge copper and gold Pebble deposit in Southwest Alaska has been widely viewed as the final blow to the project.
But at the end of last year, before the EPA issued the decision, the Pedro Bay Corporation closed a $20 million deal that blocked the Pebble Limited Partnership’s proposed route to transport materials to and from the giant copper and gold deposit. The main reason, according to the organizations that worked to secure the easement, was to protect critical salmon spawning grounds.
The deal is called the Pedro Bay Rivers Project. In 2021, 90% of the corporation’s shareholders voted to approve the deal. The Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust and another non-profit, The Conservation Fund, raised $20 million over 18 months to protect 44,000 acres of land along the northeast corner of Iliamna Lake in late December.
“We sometimes think of it as the heart of Bristol Bay, it’s sometimes the largest producing lake in the world for sockeye salmon,” said Tim Troll, the executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust. “When you look at that lake, you can see that some of the key spawning populations spawn up in the northeast corner of that lake and the river systems around Pedro Bay. And that would be the Iliamna River, Pile River and Knutson Creek.”
The land trust was founded in 2000 with a mission to protect habitat important to the region’s subsistence culture, especially around salmon spawning areas.
The deal’s impact on the now-beleaguered Pebble Mine proposal was at the forefront of conversation; it cuts off the Pebble Partnership’s proposed transportation road.
The so-called northern route was Pebble’s proposal for an 82-mile road from the mine site along the northeastern shore of Iliamna Lake to Cook Inlet. In 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified it as the best way to get materials to and from the site while causing the least environmental damage. Trucks would transport materials and equipment, and a pipeline running along the road would have transported gold and copper concentrates. The road also goes through lands owned by Iliamna Natives Ltd. and the Igiugig Village Council. Even then, the Pebble Limited Partnership acknowledged that it had to work with landowners to make that a possibility.
The land trust said on its website that the Pedro Bay project “blocks the only access road to the proposed Pebble Mine that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was willing to approve under its Clean Water Act authority to permit the project.”
Troll said part of the reason they wanted to go through with the deal was to hinder Pebble’s development, but there was more to it than that.
“When we go into a conservation easement deal, it has to make sense from a habitat protection point of view,” he said. “So if the habitat was not so important, we would have a hard time justifying a conservation easement, just to block a road. It would make sense for us to want to do this deal, even if there was no Pebble.”
KDLG reached out to the Pedro Bay Native Corporation but a representative declined to comment, saying they were not taking media inquiries at the time.
Troll said the land trust has worked with Native corporations to complete several easement deals across Bristol Bay over its 23-year lifetime. That includes working with Aleknagik Natives Ltd. and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation to secure an easement along the Agulawok River and 21,000 acres in the Wood-Tikchik State Park. In the lake area, it had previously collaborated with the Pedro Bay Corporation and also worked with Iliamna Natives Ltd. to protect a group of islands that are important habitat to salmon spawning as well as the lake’s freshwater seal population.
The Conservation Fund has been instrumental to the land trust’s efforts. For the Pedro Bay easement, the organizations raised the $20 million from a wide array of donors — the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, fish processing companies, the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, and the non-profit Alaska Venture Fund, to name a few.
“We had significant help from the Nature Conservancy that committed $1 million, and the World Wildlife Fund, they were helpful in raising another half a million or more,” Troll said. “So it was a real combined project. And that gives me a lot of pleasure to know that there were so many people interested in participating in this to protect this particular area.”
The Bristol Bay Native Corporation owns the subsurface rights to the land and was involved in discussions on the easement early on, said CEO Jason Metrokin. BBNC also helped fund the deal. Metrokin said conservation easements are a tool to protect habitat and subsistence lands in perpetuity.
“People can continue to utilize the land for traditional practices. In our case, in Bristol Bay, important salmon spawning habitat is always of a high importance and priority for the region,” he said.
Conservation easements are not a new topic for land owners in Alaska, said Metrokin. That includes Native corporations. He called it an “imperfect tool” and said it’s important for shareholders to know what it means.
“You might describe it as: Pedro Bay has locked up these lands for protection against development,” he said. “Or you might say: Pedro Bay has locked up these lands in protection of habitat and fish spawning, but also for traditional subsistence practices for community members in and around Pedro Bay.”
Pedro Bay residents and shareholders aren’t losing other significant opportunities, Metrokin said; the potential to develop on those lands is “little to none.” And while the land trust will uphold the rules and regulations around development, corporation shareholders can still access that area.
“The traditional use and the habitat importance of those lands, as deemed by Pedro Bay and the Conservation Fund, are really what’s at stake here,” he said. “And so the community is benefiting. Pedro Bay Corporation is benefiting.”
The Pedro Bay Corporation has more than 200 Dena’ina Athabascan shareholders across the state and the country, and around 40 people currently live in the village, according to the U.S. Census. Metrokin said discussions around whether to pursue conservation easements were spurred by a series of events, including the school closing a decade ago. He said the financial benefits of this deal can help offset those losses.
“Twenty million dollars in the fundraise can go a long way to helping a community pursue other opportunities, and whatever those opportunities are for the community of Pedro Bay, they now have more of an ability to pursue those,” he said. “This gives the community the ability to not only protect their lands, but also pursue the types of economic activities that are of interest to them.”
As for Pebble, Metrokin said blocking the transportation route was a secondary motive.
“There’s certainly the coincidence of the road corridor,” he said. “But in our conversations with the Pedro Bay Corporation, this conversation started, and this project is now benefiting the need to protect salmon habitat. That was the ultimate goal.”
In a statement after the deal was announced in December and a month before the EPA’s veto of the mine, Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole said, “We respect the rights of Alaska Native corporation shareholders to make decisions about what to do on their lands and hope the Biden Administration will do the same for other Alaska Native corporation shareholders who may have differing views about what they would like do on their lands, especially regarding the Pebble Project.”