Army Corps Of Engineers’ Donlin Gold Public Scoping Meeting Presentation

Here is the presentation by the COE for the upcoming public scoping meetings that will begin on Monday, January 14 in Bethel – then Aniak on the 15th and Crooked Creek on the 16th and continue through March in other locations. To see the entire presentation, click on the following link.    ScopingMtgPresJan14_2013

Salmon Management on the Kuskokwim – Dealing With Uncertainty, Complications and Occasional Controversy

What’s ahead for Kuskokwim River fishers?  More than likely lower king salmon escapement goals set by the Department of Fish and Game and a potential new Management Plan with actions geared toward attaining the new goals.

Interesting times, and possibly frustrating times, are likely ahead, especially if we continue to see low returns like we’ve experienced the past few years.

But why lower escapement goals?  They’ve got mainly to do with something called a run reconstruction.  The Department of Fish and Game have spent the past few years pulling together all their acquired information (e.g., 30+ years of weir data from the Kogrukluk weir on the upper Holitna, mark/recapture studies, subsistence and commercial harvest data, etc.) and using new tools to assess how many king salmon returned to the Kuskokwim as far back as 1976.

A snippet of that effort estimates a high return of up to 400,000 kings and a low of 240,000 between the years 2003 and 2007.  The past few years, however, having the lowest escapements on record, were well below that low number.

Why such variation?  That has to do with the productivity of our rivers and the ocean that varies in time do to climatic and other events.  One culprit for such deviation in the ocean is what’s called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) that affects its productivity; looking back in time the appears to be ten years of high production followed by ten or so of poor production.  One aspect of interest with the PDO – when the conditions are usually good for Alaska salmon of the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean, they aren’t for their relatives further south in the Pacific Northwest.  But after a decade if those conditions reverse, the salmon off the west coast increase in abundance while our salmon tend to go down the tubes.

But as soon as scientists think they have a handle on such environmental drivers as the PDO, something else pops up; of late, that something is climate change.  It’s these changes, along with the difficulty of really knowing for sure how many fish are in the river that generates the uncertainty that is so prevalent in fisheries management.  Often times it’s that uncertainty that leads not only to complexity, but also the occasional controversy.

This past summer with its apparent low returns and consequent restrictions was a good example.  Given the restrictions, it would have been nice to accurately know just how many fish returned to spawn, but because of the high water at many of the weir sites, precise numbers are not known.  But that’s not to say there weren’t years with accurate data that were incorporated into the run reconstruction; the Department biologists are doing the best they can with what they have to work with.

Here’s where some of the complexity comes in to play.  During any given fishing season, not all the fish we catch in our nets or see on the spawning grounds were born the same year.  Part of the run reconstruction deals not only with what comes back each year to spawn (that is the escapement), but also what those fish that made it back ultimately produce in the subsequent years.

In order to know that, biologists first need to know what the age composition of a particular year’s run.  How do they know how old the salmon are?  Their ages are determined by scales collected from the various weir projects; like the rings of a tree tell us how old the tree is, so do the rings of a scale (hopefully you can see why weirs are such a valuable tool).  Scales are also taken from the subsistence and commercial catches.  From the age data we know that king salmon return to the Kuskokwim between the ages of three and eight years old.

As part of the reconstruction, the Department uses what’s called a spawner/recruit relationship.  The recruits are what come back over time from any given year’s spawners (every individual year’s return is comprised of numerous age classes from various spawning years).  Let’s look at one particular year – 1992 when it’s estimated that throughout the entire Kuskokwim 285,370 king salmon returned or “escaped” to spawn.  The age data from the scales told us that 7,109 of those were three-year olds (or jacks), 76,311 were four-year olds, 95,222 were five-year olds, 100,459 were six-year olds, 6,246 were seven-year olds and only eight returning kings were eight-year olds.

So if we do the math, those eight-year old fish were from eggs deposited in the gravel in 1984.  The seven-year olds were spawned in 1985, and so on down to the three-year old component that had parents spawning in 1989.

But why lower the escapement goals when we are already seeing low returns?  It doesn’t seem to make any sense does it?  First of all, the Department established the current escapement goals using data mostly from high escapement years (that just happens to be when most weirs came on line).

And the long-term data set shown in the following graph shows dips around 1978 and 1994 followed by upswings – generating somewhat of a cyclic pattern; even if you go back prior to 1976 the pattern still holds.  Could that be from the Pacific Decadal Oscillation resulting in some type of competition among the fish somewhere over their lives?  Quite possibly.

Note that the red horizontal line above is at 1.00 – this is the replacement line.  If all those blue bars were even with the read line, then for every fish that came back to spawn just one fish returned.  It wouldn’t matter if it were three, four or eight years later – the result is the same, a steady population with no growth or no losses.  But that’s not how nature works.

What the graph shows is that when the bars are above that line more fish ultimately returned than spawned for that given parent or brood year which demonstrates good to very good productivity.  Then in those years that are below that line – something happened in the environment over a fish’s lifetime that created competition among the siblings – and even other year classes – to where not as many fish survived to came back as spawned them.  Consequently, productivity took a downturn.

The basis then for lowering escapement goals is ultimately to get more fish on the spawning grounds and in subsistence and commercial fishermen’s nets.  It just doesn’t sound logical does it?  An expert independent scientist, not associated with the Department of Fish and Game, concluded during the AYKSSI meeting recently that over-fishing (i.e., commercial or otherwise) has not contributed to the low runs we have seen.  Others scientists concluded that reduced productivity levels in our local streams and the Bering Sea are what is driving the recent low returns that we’ve experienced.


Several new management plans have emerged that will go before the Board of Fisheries next month.  Given what was previously discussed, there still is not consensus on what the escapement goal (or goals) should be among the Department, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group.

The Department has submitted a proposed plan that will compliment their recently revised escapement goal (they intend to have only one for the entire Kuskokwim River that resulted from the run reconstruction).

Of their proposed changes, one in particular will not be received well – especially for those subsistence fishers above Bethel.  Here’s an excerpt from that proposal:  if king abundance is projected to be inadequate to meet escapement goals and to provide for a reasonable subsistence opportunity, and if the commissioner determines that there is a harvestable surplus of chum sufficient to provide for escapement needs and a reasonable opportunity for subsistence, the commissioner may, by emergency order, open a directed chum fishery and the department shall manage to the extent practical, the commercial chum fishery to minimize the harvest of king salmon.

The obvious reason for discontent being that even if it is known that the escapement goal will not be met, then some king salmon would be incidentally harvested in a directed chum salmon commercial fishery.  That amount would vary, depending on conditions.

Because the Working Group had several issues with Department’s proposed plan, they came up with one of their own that will be presented to the Board of Fisheries.  I participated on the committee that developed the draft plan that was agreed upon at the last Working Group meeting.

Here’s that same section as is in the Department’s plan – with a slight twist: if king abundance is projected to be inadequate to achieve the drainage-wide escapement goal and to provide for ANS, and if the commissioner determines that there is a harvestable surplus of chum sufficient to provide for escapement needs and a reasonable opportunity for subsistence, then the commissioner may… open a directed chum fishery and the department shall manage the commercial chum fishery to harvest fewer than 1,000 kings for the season.

The reason the Working Group’s plan has a cap of 1,000 fish is that we believe there needs to be some limit as to how many kings are taken, knowing that subsistence fishers above Bethel will likely have a particularly difficult time harvesting kings.

It was difficult for me as part of the committee to go along with even a few kings taken in a commercial fishery, but I realize how important economic opportunities are for everyone during these hard economic times; the other committee members were aware of that too.  Personally, I have not harvested a king salmon the past two seasons because I have cast my 7 ½-inch net aside – not to one side or the other of the boat – but on shore.  For now, I mostly put away silvers and sheefish.

Can we in the Kuskokwim work together and work through these difficult times?  I hope so, and I was encouraged by what I heard at the AYKSSI meeting…and it wasn’t from a scientist, it was from a fisherman from Norton Sound.  He talked about two acts of civil disobedience that he was involved with – well, they were actually acts of reverse civil disobedience.

Steve Ivanoff from Unalakleet told of a recent time when they enacted a self-imposed three-year moose moratorium, even when the Department of Fish and Game didn’t endorse it.  He also told of a time when a commercial fishing period for king salmon was announced, but many fishermen just sat on the beach and watched for they didn’t think that escapement would be met…and they ended up being right.

They were told that they could hunt and fish, but they were more concerned about the animals and the future opportunities for their children, so they chose voluntarily not catch!  Mr. Ivanoff stated that the reason they were able to endure those self-imposed conservation measures was because they had, and used, alternate food sources.  In other words, they adapted in order to allow the populations to build back up so that their children would not have to sacrifice.

Will our salmon populations rebound from the “lowest escapements on record”?  Hopefully they will.  If the cycles shown in that graph are any indication of what’s to come, they will…but it might take a while.

The ultimate question is – can we here in the Kuskokwim voluntarily conserve by adapting our fishing practices like using smaller mesh gear and switching to other more abundant species like sockeye, chums, silvers and sheefish?

Like the people of Norton Sound, everyone must do their part and think not only of themselves – but those upstream and downstream of us as well as future generations.

As so many elders have said, “When people argue about fish the fish will disappear.”, and we most certainly don’t want that.

Donlin Gold Project Happenings

Here are the latest happenings on the Donlin Gold Environmental Impact Statement – known forever more as the EIS.  If you’ve never heard of such a thing, you’ll be hearing that acronym hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the next three or four years; it’s likely to be more common than YKHC or AVCP.

Why an EIS?  It’s because Barrick Gold and Nova Gold submitted their Plan of Operations and Wetlands Permit Application earlier this summer for the Donlin Gold project; as a result, the National Environmental Policy Act – or NEPA – process was formally initiated.  What the NEPA process does is consider the environmental impacts associated with the proposed project by requiring the responsible agency to hold numerous public meetings where the public can express their concerns; in addition to those meetings, the public can comment in writing or over the Internet.

The EIS for this particular project is expected to take at least three years to complete.  The Army Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency spearheading the effort and is responsible for coordinating government-to-government coordination with the tribes most affected by the proposed project.

Tribes can participate in the process in several ways: 1) on a government-to-government basis, 2) as a cooperating agency, 3) as stakeholders, 4) and/or as private citizens.  Sixty-six tribes have been formally contacted about what level of participation they deem appropriate.

The villages of Crooked Creek, Chuathbaluk and Napaimute chose to be Cooperating Agencies.  Our responsibilities in that capacity include assisting the lead agency by providing information and environmental analyses; reviewing direct, indirect, and cumulative effects; and suggesting mitigation measures for potential adverse effects.

The Corps of Engineers has hired a company to carry out the majority of the EIS components; it’s a very large company called URS Corporation that has an office in Anchorage.  URS has a core team specifically designated for working on the Donlin project, and two of their staff should be familiar to some of you here in the Kuskokwim.  Taylor Brelsford, the Senior Environmental Scientist/Planner or Project Manager, has lived in both Sleetmute and Aniak.  Taylor, an anthologist by training, has also worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  Moxie Alexie, who many more will know, is their Senior Rural Outreach Specialist – he’ll be working closely with the tribal and village entities throughout the process.

To get you prepped for what’s to come, here’s a snapshot of the Donlin project as spelled out in Barrick’s/Nova Gold’s Plan of Operation that was submitted with the application for permit.

If approved, the construction for the mine itself will take between three and four years and the life of the mine is expected to be about 27 years.  It will take approximately 2,500 workers to build the mine and then between 600 and 1,000 to operate it.

The majority of the power for the mine will come in the form of natural gas.  A 14-inch pipeline will run mostly underground from Beluga Point in Cook Inlet for 313 miles to the project site.  The gas pipeline will run under the Kuskokwim River between the villages of Stony River and McGrath and placed using a technique called horizontal directional drilling; the distance required for that technique is over 7,000 feet.

Proposed route of the natural gas pipeline

Removal of the ore to be processed will be through what is considered a typical truck and shovel operation.  The ore will come from a large open pit that could be as large as 2.2 miles wide and 1.0 mile wide; the pit could end up being over 1,600 feet deep.

General location of pit, waster rock facility and tailings storage facility

It’s expected that one million ounces of gold will annually be produced at the mine, so to say that this mine will be large is somewhat of an understatement.  Some in the mining industry claim that it has the potential to be the world’s largest producer of gold!

With those 20+ million ounces of gold produced over the mine’s life comes about 3 billion tons of waste material.  Waste rock is the material that contains no gold – for every ton of ore that contains quantities of gold worth processing there are 5.5 tons of waste material to deal with.  The waste rock will be stored southeast of the pit in the American Creek drainage (you can see the location from the previous picture).  Of that 3 billion tons of waste rock, it’s estimated that up to 7 percent of it has the potential to generate acid rock drainage.

Another byproduct of the mining process is what’s called tailings.  The tailings start out as large chunks of rock blasted from the pit that are eventually crushed and ground down to sand size particles in large revolving drums containing steel balls and bars.  From these small particles the gold is removed using a cyanide leaching process.  There is a lot more involved in the milling process – including the recycling of water and chemicals – but what remains is a slurry of liquid and sand-sized or smaller particles that will eventually wind up in the tailings storage facility (TSF) in the Anaconda Creek drainage.

A closer look at the tailings storage facility (TSF)

This tailings storage facility will be over 2,000 acres in size or roughly 107 Bethel Airport runways set side by side (the Bethel runway is 6,400 feet long by 150 feet wide).  The vast majority of material in the tailings storage facility will be the smaller ground particles, much of which will contain some leftover chemicals from the milling process and also have the potential to be acid generating.  For this reason, the entire floor of the tailings facility will have a thick impermeable liner.  The water and chemicals collected in the impoundment will be reclaimed and continually recirculated back up to the milling facility to be used in the milling process.  The dam holding back the tailings will be 460 feet high and roughly 5,800 feet long.

The tailings storage facility for the Golden Sunlight Mine in Montana. Note the liner that covers the bottom and sides of the facility.

The tailings facility dam at the Golden Sunlight Mine in Montana. Pumpback wells pump water or acid rock drainage that seeps through the dam.

What’s presented here in this post is just a general overview of the Donlin Gold project.

This project, if it proceeds, has the potential to forever change the complexion of the Kuskokwim.  I’m not saying that that is a good thing…and I’m not saying that that is a bad thing.  But please pay attention to what is proposed, provide comments if you feel so inclined, and above all stay informed.  The more you know the better informed your decisions will be.

To say that there will be a ton of information to keep up with would be a gross understatement – at times it might even seem to be as much tonnage as there is waste rock – but we’ll help as best we can to disseminate what we know in a timely and easy to understand manner; and hopefully it will be as objective as possible.

Much more detailed information is available on the official website provided by URS at

We’ll keep you posted when additional information is available.



Improving Indoor Air Quality

Alaska Tribal Air Quality Health Consortium Guide For Improving Air Quality

In a recent study conducted by the Alaska Tribal Air Quality Health Consortium of fifteen homes in rural Alaska over 1/2 of the children between the ages of 3 and 12 had some type of respiratory condition.  Likely causes included: diesel stoves in need of repair or maintenance, outdated wood-burning stoves in disrepair, pollution from engine parts and cleaning solvents that were stored inside the home, and poor to non-existent ventilation would allow for harmful particulates to escape the confines of the residences.

Of those fifteen homes, all had high levels of particulate matter, carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds from the solvents and petroleum products wafting from engine parts.  However, after remediation efforts, those levels noticeably decreased; the carbon dioxide and particulates dropped by half while the organic compounds were reduced by 65 percent.

What measures can you take to improve the conditions in your home?

First of all – try not to work on your sno-go, boat motor or 4-wheeler in the house; the fumes coming off them are very harmful.  If you must work in a confined area like the house or shed, crack a window or door to let the fumes out.

Make sure your wood stove is properly installed and that the chimney is cleaned regularly and secured snuggly (we don’t want any house fires).  A properly functioning stove should be more-or-less smoke free; in other words you should see very little smoke coming from the stack.  There should be no smoke billowing back into the house when opening the stove door.

Do your best to burn dry wood – try and collect it several months in advance and store it off the ground and covered.

Burn your fires hot – not smoldering.

Regularly remove ashes from the stove floor.

Things recommended not to burn in wood stoves: household garbage, cardboard, plastics, styrofoam, magazines with colored ink, fancy wrappers that can produce harmful chemicals, painted wood, particle board or any wood with glue on it.

Never burn wet, rotted, diseased, or moldy wood.

Be good to your neighbors – your smoke can affect them as much as it does you!

Below are informational links that discuss the health hazards of particulate matter and other pollutants and ways to minimize those hazards.


Recent Statewide Invasive Species Workshop

I spent three days last week in Kodiak at the annual Committee for Noxious & Invasive Plant Management (CNIPM) workshop with over seventy other interested individuals from various agencies like the Fish & Wildlife Service, ADF&G, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, DOT, Department of Environmental Conservation, UAF, UAA, several Soil & Water Conservation Districts as well as a few other native organizations; the Kuskokwim region was also represented by John Oscar, the Director of the Kuskokwim River Watershed Council.

The name of the group that hosted the meeting – Committee for Noxious & Invasive Plant Management – is now really outdated because workshops currently include presentations about such problematic introduced invasive organisms like moths, fishes (e.g., pike on the Kenai Peninsula) and other critters (e.g., ocean crabs that are steadily moving northward from California and British Columbia).

I participated in a panel that discussed the efforts going on in southwest Alaska to document, and hopefully control or eradicate, the relatively few introduced and invasive organisms that we have…or may eventually have within the Kuskokwim drainage.  I highlighted Napaimute’s efforts at spreading the word to outside interests like fishing outfitters about the potential for bringing such troublesome aquatic invaders as water weed (Elodea nuttallii) and reed canarygrass to our region by way of an informative poster and email correspondences.  You can see previous posts on this website explaining the concerns over invasive organisms (i.e., What’s Bugging Alaska’s Forests? and Kuskokwim-Wide Invasive Species Concerns).

Also on that panel was a representative of the Native Village of Ekuk in Bristol Bay.  The Bristol Bay region, although not having as many introduced species as most other developed areas of the state, does have more than the Kuskokwim.  Metlakatla, a Tsimshian community in southeast had their natural resource director discuss the economic impacts of invasive species on Annette Island – which are quite substantial.  On a similar but different topic, a representative of the Native Village of Tyonek talked about the benefits of forming a Conservation District and how that has aided in their invasive species control efforts.

The fact that the meeting was held in Kodiak was highly appropriate because, maybe more than any other location in the state, the Kodiak region is dealing with the most introduced plants and animals that have been transplanted – either intentionally or unintentionally.  For instance, elk, bison, Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, reindeer, beavers, snowshoe hares, moose, muskrats and several other mammals had been intentionally moved there since the 1920’s to improve hunting and subsistence opportunities.  Although there have been benefits with such introductions, there have been far-reaching unintended consequences.  For instance, the mountain goats often over-graze the available habitat removing vegetation and underlying soil down to bedrock; which makes for quite an unsightly scene…not to mention the ecological degradation.  Similarly, reindeer have severely depleted the lichen communities throughout the island over time.

In regards to just plants, the following photo vividly shows the extent of the many introduced ones that have encroached on the town of Kodiak…most of which have been unintentional invaders:

All those colored dots, red crosses and odd shapes represent an introduced plant location in Kodiak

Why so many non-native plants around the town of Kodiak?  Anytime we humans move about and want things that others have (e.g., showy ornamental gardens, hobbies like horse backing, rodeo, etc) and disturb the land, the potential for a stray seed to take hold greatly increases.  Case in point: Kodiak has long had livestock on the island; the Russians introduced some as early as 1795.  Currently there are several bison and cattle ranches scattered about and there’s even a rodeo grounds that supports activities like 4-H.  In order to support such activities, hay and straw are required – which is often brought from far away places.

Several years ago I went to Kodiak as part of a weed crew that had to spray herbicides on some of the more problematic infestations at the rodeo grounds and at the oldest cannery on the north side of the island – as well as nearby island.  That experience was an eye-opener for me.  I knew then and there that we never want to see the likes of orange hawkweed and other troublesome plants here in the Kuskokwim. Orange hawkweed is such a problem around the state that it showed up in many of the presentations and was the workshop’s opening slide.

So keep your eyes out for an orange dandelion-looking plant this next summer...and all summers after that!

If that’s not enough to worry about, the state has concerns over unwanted insects entering the “last frontier”.  As strange as it sounds, firewood is often shipped to our state via ferries and other ships from Washington, while firewood is regularly transported by tourists across the border north of Tok; one carload of wood intercepted had originated in Oklahoma!  Take note next time you’re in Anchorage, there’s a high likelihood that some of the wood sold in any of the Wal-Marts and 7-11 type stores is harboring some exotic wood borer.

One alarming tidbit noted at the conference was that the aquatic invasive Elodea mentioned above has recently been found in two locations on the Kenai Peninsula – Daniels and Stormy lakes.  That fast spreading plant is known to be in several float plane lakes in the Anchorage area, lakes that most likely are visited by planes that come out to our region.

Why stray off on discussions about far away places like Kodiak and Tok?  It doesn’t take long for seeds and unwanted things to catch a ride in one way or another to our region.  That’s why I didn’t fish while in Kodiak – yet they have steelhead that enter the rivers this time of year.  Steelhead are rainbow trout that go to the ocean and return to their natal streams like salmon to spawn, but unlike salmon they don’t die after their sexual escapades; the lucky ones that survive the arduous journey are capable of spawning more than once in their lifetime.  Since steelhead are really just giant rainbows I used to love fishing for them when I lived in Idaho.  However, I didn’t want to take the chance of bringing any troublesome non-native organism back with me last week that we certainly don’t want here…like didymo or “rock snot” which is known to be in several Kodiak streams (it’s uncertain whether it’s native or not to Kodiak Island – but it has wreaked havoc in places where it was introduced).  If I didn’t clean my equipment adequately, I could have easily brought it back on my wading shoes.  Also, if I wasn’t careful, I could have transported any number of unwanted plant seeds in my shoe crevices had I gone out hiking.

So keep that in mind the next time you go visit family or friends in other parts of the state.  It seems that more and more of us are becoming worldly travelers, we certainly don’t want to be the vectors that introduce something that’s never been here before.

In talking to John Oscar at the end of the gathering he somberly realized that he had his work cut our for him and that invasive species would forever be a major focus of the Watershed Council’s efforts to protect the ecological integrity of the Kuskokwim drainage.

To show that scientists and biologists are real people and that they don’t always take life too seriously – even when it comes to a very serious topic like invasive plants – here are a few pictures from the Halloween party that was held Halloween night.

A Burmese python that attacked an unsuspecting botanist that was reaching down near the water's edge to pick up an Elodea specimen. These pythons can grow up to 17 feet long and have taken over the Florida everglades.

A couple of witches looking at the invasive plant map of Kodiak to find where they can get their next nasty ingredient to throw into their bubbling caldron.

Let the parade and the fun begin!

A Tour Of Barrick’s Golden Sunlight Mine In Montana

I recently returned from a Donlin Gold sponsored tour of the Golden Sunlight mine just a few miles outside of a small ranching town in Montana called Whitehall.  The operating mine is about 50 miles west of Bozeman, which is about 90 miles to the north of Yellowstone National Park.  The mine is presently owned by Barrick and has been in operation for over 30 years and is a typical open-pit truck and shovel operation – similar to what Donlin Gold would be.

From all indications the mine appears to be situated in a location that couldn’t be better.  For starters, the climate is relatively dry, with average precipitation about 10 inches a year.  It’s also not far from a major highway – Highway 90 that connects Bozeman with Butte and Missoula to the west and Billings to the east; you can see a good portion of the mine from the highway (see photo below).  Logistically, the proximately to infrastructure such as a power grid and highway make operations like this relatively easy compared to one in remote Alaska that has virtually none.

Looking from the highway at the waste rock storage area

Secondly, most locals who reside in the area are very glad the mine is where it is – in part because it employs a good many local residents, over 200 in the town of a little over 1,100 people.  Not only does the mine provide direct employment, it also requires the services of about 70 contractors (who hire many others) who carry out much of the work.

Upon arrival at the Bozeman airport Kurt Parkan with Donlin Gold and Bill Bieber with Barrick were there to greet us and shuttle us to our hotel.  Bill pointed out that the Golden Sunlight mine was the first mine he ever worked at – he grew up in Whitehall and still has family there.

After the long flight and a short’s night rest the group travelled the following day to Whitehall and observed one of the monthly meetings of the group called the Community Transition Advisory Committee, or CTAC for short.  This group is comprised of local community members, e.g., representatives of the chamber of commerce; county commissions; Fish Wildlife and Parks which is similar to ADF&G; the local college; the local development corporation; the school district; bank; several local landowners and various mine managers.  The intent is to have a representative cross section of the community.

One of the members, a county extension agent, came to Bethel several years ago to speak about the ongoing mine operations at an AVCP Convention while another used to live in St. Marys.

The group was established about ten years ago with the purpose of regularly communicating the happenings of the mine to local residents; in other words an information conduit.  It was originally started when it appeared that the mine life would be coming to an end and the community leaders feared that the mine would be typical of many boom and bust resource extraction projects like are common in the western part of the lower 48.  They wanted as smooth a transition as possible to offset the large economic void left when the mine does eventually cease operations.

During the meeting it was noted that Barrick has done a lot for the community and that one of their guiding principles is sustainable development….even after the closure of the mine; the goal here being to build economic and social capacity throughout the region.  Several times during the meeting it was noted that safety in all aspects of the operation is one of Barrick’s highest priorities, and that they have worked to transfer that ethic throughout the community via safety fairs and other means.

Several of the local residents expressed a sincere trust between the community members and the managers of the mine.  It seems that the mine’s personnel and the local residents have a very good working relationship.  Not only are those 200+ residents employed by the mine, but a good portion of the managers are thoroughly involved in civic activities.

The second day of our trip was the actual tour of the mine facilities.  We first sat through a safety briefing and then a presentation about the workings of the mine.  During the mine’s life around 3.2 million ounces of gold has been recovered from 64 million tons of ore that have been blasted, trucked and processed in one way or another.  To date about 2,300 acres of land have been disturbed, much of which has already been reclaimed (we did see some wildlife; i.e., deer in and around the reclaimed areas).

If you look closely in the center of the picture you'll see a mule deer - there were three others on the other side of the road we were traveling on.

During the presentation our group asked many good questions, specifically about the similarities and differences between what we were about to see and the proposed Donlin mine.  Most obvious to us was the difference in climate, Montana’s being very dry compared to the Kuskokwim – especially after the past three excessively wet summers!

All operating mines use water, and usually vast quantities of it to process the gold – especially the milling process.

One of the many leaching vats

Both mines are, or will be, what’s called zero discharge meaning that no surface or ground water within the mine’s working perimeter is allowed to enter any streams downstream of the mine itself during the mine’s operation.

Consequently, mining operations have to deal with what’s called a water budget or water balance, and that can be tricky because it’s all contingent on weather conditions…which at best are unpredictable.

A Golden Sunlight representative said that their 10 inches of annual precipitation actually works to their advantage because lots of water flowing through, and around, acid generating ore is problematic. If there was more water then they could handle say from a tremendous amount of snow in a given year, or an exceptionally rainy summer, the probability of acid mine drainage getting into the downstream waters would greatly increase.

According to Bill Bieber, even though our region averages over twice as much precipitation a year, the needs for water at Donlin are such that they will still have to capture every possible drop they can (Crooked Creek averages 15.5” of precipitation a year).  All mines, in order to minimize their water consumption, recycle as much as they can again and again and again.

But such an operation like Donlin will prevent a certain amount of water from entering the streams below (e.g., snowmelt in the spring and rain runoff during the summer).  And it goes without saying, but fish do need a certain amount of water to survive; the less water the less productive the system will be.  It will be interesting to watch just how low Crooked Creek gets in the coming years if the mine goes into production – especially low water years.

Another difference noted was the amount of land that will be disturbed.  It’s uncertain how large Donlin will eventually be, but there is the potential for it to be mind-boggling.  In all sincerity, some mining officials believe from analyzing the exploration data that it could be the world’s largest!  So everything we saw in Montana would be amplified several times, which to be honest, is a little disconcerting.

The height of the tailings dams at both Fort Knox in Fairbanks and in Montana were impressive, but Donlin’s will be that much bigger and holding that much more potentially acid generating material behind them…magnitudes more.  During the tour one geologic plus was noted, and that is that there tends to be a fair amount of naturally occurring carbonate minerals up behind Crooked Creek that could lessen the potential for acid drainage problems by neutralizing much of the acid.

With any mining project, it’s dealing with the tailings that is the most significant environmental challenge.  One thing I learned about tailings impoundments is that they’re designed to hold mostly sand sized processed ore and relatively little water compared to a normal dam; knowing that did allay some of my fears.  Why they don’t hold much water is that, as already mentioned, most of the water going into a tailings impoundment is constantly being recycled back up to be used in the milling process.

Golden Sunlight's tailings impoundment - note the relatively little water in the background

Although these dams are designed to withstand the probable maximum precipitation and large earthquake events, it was noted that the biggest causes of dam failure are overtopping by water and seismic activity – in that order.  So unfortunately, there are no real assurances that there won’t be any problems since nature and its concomitant weather are factors.

In the following pictures you’ll see the plastic liner that will be used to potentially prevent acid mine drainage from seeping through – or out – of the tailings impoundment.  It’s 80-mil thick (a little thicker than a quarter) and will be placed over the entire bottom and sides of the impoundment with pieces spliced together to make it one gigantic impermeable layer.  Unfortunately, liners aren’t forever, so no one knows for sure just how effective they’ll be hundreds of years from now.


A portion of the liner being placed on the side of the tailings impoundment

If liners do fail, which has happened, it’s usually from improper installation or mechanical damage; i.e., a piece of machinery puncturing it.

It is highly unlikely that no acid mine drainage will seep from such an impoundment; so smaller backup impoundments are built to gather the seepage and pump it back up into the main impoundment.  At the Golden Sunlight mine there are three such catchments.

Acid seepage from Golden Sunlight's tailings impoundment


A backup catchment pond pumping water back up to the main impoundment facility

Upon completion of the Donlin project, it’s expected that the tailings facility contents will stabilize and eventually look and function very much like a meadow.  To make that happen they’ll recontour the surface and cover it with three or more feet of topsoil and then plant native vegetation.  It’s also expected that, over time, the concern for any toxic seepage from the tailings impoundment will diminish.

One thing that is forever, however, will be the need to monitor the water leaving the pit once it fills up…which could take 50 or more years.  Here’s a few pictures looking into the Golden Sunlight pit, which as noted will be much smaller than the one planned for Donlin.

Looking across toward the top of the pit


Looking half way down the pit at a truck carrying blasted ore to the processing mill

And looking at the bottom of the pit. Note the water and acid mine drainage seeping from the pit walls. This is indicative of why the water will have to be monitored for its quality for perpetuity...which is forever.

Similar to the Fort Knox mine in Fairbanks, there was little concern for mercury being emitted at the Golden Sunlight mine, but that’s not the case at Donlin.  Since there was little to no concern at either site, very little discussion ensued – so we’ll leave that topic for a later discussion, however.

The official permitting process for the Donlin Gold project will soon begin now that Donlin Gold has formally submitted their application to the Department of Natural Resources.  Now’s the time to pay attention to what exactly is proposed and express your concerns during the public involvement process.

As time goes on we’ll keep you posted on this site as to what’s happening during that process.


Dave Cannon

Environmental Director



A Fishing Season To Remember…Or Forget by Mark Leary

The Politics of Fish: Doing What’s Right – Not What’s Popular

It’s been a summer to remember – or maybe to forget. Days and days of bad weather, high water in the River, and a disastrous King Salmon Season.

We are still dealing with the effects (the politics) of this disastrous King Salmon season, but as winter comes closer the People will have persevered and filled their freezers with the many other kinds of food still abundant in our waters and on our lands: Chums, Reds, Silvers, whitefish, waterfowl, berries, moose, bear, beaver, etc. I know my family’s own freezers are full. Nobody’s going to starve as some lamented back in June. This is 2012 – not 1912.

In my own small life, I’ve had the privilege of spending a great deal of time with Elders from the Lower, Middle, and Upper Kuskokwim, as well as the Middle Yukon. I don’t know what they saw in me – maybe it was the immense respect a young guy had for the way they used to live – and the countless hours he spent just listening. From them I learned about a way of life that was hard, but independent. “They didn’t depend on nobody”. They got almost everything they needed from the land and waters around them – some stuff they got from the traders, but the time when their parents and grandparents got everything off the land was still in their memories. Also in their memories were times when there were fish and game shortages; sometimes due to bad weather patterns, sometimes simply due to the natural fluctuations of wildlife. They always adapted, found other things to eat, did what they had to do to survive.  They had to. There was nobody else to help them except themselves. No “Disaster Declarations”. No QUEST CARDS. Yet, there were times when some didn’t make it – stories of starvation – but those stories are from a very distant time.

Does anyone remember how they used to catch salmon in the main river in traditional times?

…Before the introduction of the deadly 50 fathom, 8″ mesh nets we use now.

The way I’ve been told that Middle and Upper River People fished was with large taluyaqs and elaborate fences reaching out from the shore – all made from split spruce wood, tied with spruce roots. The People also used short handmade nets either set or drifted from their canoes or qayaqs. Although both methods would have been less effective in a high water year like this one, they did the job.

This year in the traditional spirit of adapting to circumstances, one industrious family that I know of cut, smoked and dried over 140 silvers during August. It can be done. It takes changing the normal ways of doing things and a little more work, but isn’t that what the strong People of our region are famous for: persevering and adapting. If it wasn’t true, the People would have starved long ago and there would be nobody left in our region today. Instead we are flourishing.

And it makes me sad that while we’ve made heroes out of the 31 people that fished in protest during the subsistence King Salmon fishing closures, nobody has ever talked about the real heroes of the 2012 King Salmon season: the hundreds, maybe thousands of people that didn’t fish. These were the people that could see beyond the “right now” and truly thought about our children and grandchildren by not fishing. These are the heroes to me – the people that stuck together and endured the hardship of not fishing for King Salmon so that we could conserve what little there was for our future generations.

During the subsistence closures I talked to an Elder in Aniak who said to me, “We needed this. We needed to feel this pain. When I was growing up we were thankful for every fish – not just King Salmon. We’ve become spoiled”

In Napaimute we could have fished all we wanted – there was nobody watching – except my own children.  They were watching what I was going to do while the People in the Lower River were in turmoil over not being able to fish. But I told my kids, “We won’t fish. We’ll follow the closures. We’ll do this for you and your kids.” Thinking about what that Aniak Elder said we put up more Chums and Reds to make up for the shortage of Kings and were thankful for them all. It was a hard, sad season for us – as it was for everyone along the River. My Wife commented over and over again throughout the summer, “Gee, I only cut fish one day all summer.” That was on our best day of fishing. On the other days our daughters took care of the few fish we were able to get.

We never see our Women happier than when they are cutting fish. I used to tell my kids, “You’ll never see your Mom happier than when She’s cutting fish – even happier than when She’s shopping!”

I do believe it’s true that there are many other factors hurting our King Salmon runs – especially out in the ocean. (Something else to consider is the unlimited mesh gear used in subsistence that selects for the BIG females- because it is shown to have had an impact on the Yukon). I don’t believe that the blame falls all on one factor, but is most likely a combination of things. There’s so much we don’t yet know about the salmon.

But the fact is that once the run returns to the River, no matter what happened out in the high seas, or who’s to blame, that’s all there is … and it has to be managed accordingly to get some of them home to spawn.

It doesn’t seem fair that the People of the River have to bear this brunt of management and, in times of low returns – restrictions, but until we fully understand the who and how of what is happening to the salmon out in the ocean there doesn’t seem to be another way.

Now the Alaska Department of Fish & Game is proposing to LOWER escapement goals for King Salmon on Kuskokwim River tributaries and to establish a drainage wide escapement goal for King Salmon. I don’t have a good understanding yet of why they want to do this, but I suspect it’s a reaction to the immense amount of public pressure put on the Department to allow People to fish during the 2012 subsistence King Salmon season.

The entire Kuskokwim King Salmon Escapement Goal was 127,000. When it became clear that the King run was weak and it would be difficult or impossible to meet this escapement goal, previously agreed upon subsistence restrictions had to be implemented.

With LOWER escapement goals there would be more opportunity for subsistence fishing and less chance of fishing restrictions. Sounds like what we all want right?


Seems like we would always want as many Kings to spawn as possible, otherwise we would be slowly killing the fishery.

How much confidence is there that the proposed escapement goals will sustain King Salmon runs for our future generations? What are the social and biological effects of these proposed escapement goals? In order to make an informed decision that will affect our future generations we need to be informed about how our resources and how our People will be affected. In addition, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has put in a “place holder” proposal to the Board of Fisheries for a Kuskokwim River Salmon Rebuilding Management Plan.  Language in the proposal brings question to ADF&G’s intentions.  Here’s what they have proposed:

If the king salmon run is projected to be inadequate to meet escapement goals and to provide for a reasonable subsistence opportunity, and if the commissioner determines that there is a harvestable surplus of chum salmon sufficient to provide for escapement needs and a reasonable opportunity for subsistence, the commissioner may, by emergency order, open a directed chum fishery and the department shall manage to the extent practical, the commercial chum salmon fishery to minimize the harvest of king salmon.

This proposal has not yet been discussed with Tribes or the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group.

At the 48th Annual AVCP Convention this proposed lowering of the Kuskokwim King Salmon Escapement Goals was discussed and addressed through resolution. At this time AVCP is asking for a delay to change to escapement goals to allow adequate time for a review of the data and analysis, for Tribes, who depend on the Kuskokwim Chinook stocks, to be adequately informed and involved in the decision making process, and for a Kuskokwim River Chinook Salmon Management Plan to be developed with stakeholders from along the river.

I’m confident that Napaimute’s leadership will support this position to adequately inform and involve our Tribes in the decision making process, but we all must understand that by keeping the escapement goals for King Salmon high, we will also be accepting the fact that when runs are low there will be the likelihood of restrictions being put on Kuskokwim Subsistence Fishing again.

It’s easy to agree to something now when King Salmon fishing isn’t a priority – like we all did last spring when the plan for implementing restrictions in case the King run was weak was first proposed.

But when the going gets tough – if the Kuskokwim King run is weak again – will we truly ALL stick together?

In 2012, 31 fishermen didn’t stick with us…

…now they’re famous…

…and the rest of us have been forgotten.

As was stated at the AVCP Convention by keynote speaker and Tribal leader Billy Frank: “United we stand, divided we fall.”

We either ALL fish or we ALL don’t fish.

A King Salmon Management Plan, if developed with people from all along the river working together, could be designed to incorporate the needs of the people.  It could address concerns like maintaining adequate densities of fish upriver or allowing for some limited opportunity to harvest kings for subsistence along the river even in low abundance years to avoid a situation like 2012.  Now, this winter season, is the time for us to work together on these king salmon conservation issues and to address our concerns before the salmon begin entering the river next year.

Thank you.

Mark Leary

Tour Of The Fort Knox Mine

On Tuesday, September 18, I went on a Donlin Gold sponsored tour of the Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks with about 30 other folks from throughout the region.  The intent of the trip was to show what a large-scale traditional truck and shovel open pit hardrock mine would be like since the Donlin Gold project would be similar…but even larger.

The chartered Penair Saab 340 departed Bethel early in the morning and headed straight to Fairbanks.  Upon arriving in Fairbanks we boarded a bus and travelled the 25 miles to the mine site.

My first impression as we approached the site was that this was a huge endeavor, much larger than I expected.  To show just how big it is – the monthly electric bill is 4.3 million dollars.

Looking across a portion of the mine from the top of the pit.

As the bus approached the premises, several Kinross personnel boarded and provided information on the various aspects of the operation.  The first stop was to the top of the pit that is approximately 1,400 feet deep.  From that vantage point the 20-foot high dump trucks looked like ants crawling around as they went to and fro the mill facility.  An interesting factoid on those massive dump trucks – each tire is valued at an astounding $80,000.

Looking down into the 1,400 pit that will some day be a lake. Note the dump trucks on the far side of the pit 1/3 of the way down from the top of the photo.

As part of the tour we were able to enter the mill facilities where the ore is crushed and processed; considering the immensity of the operation, the technology and equipment used along with the sincere concern for safety, it was all very impressive.  The big hit was when the Kinross tour guide brought a gold bar worth a quarter of a million dollars onto the bus.  Eyes lit up and everyone wanted to hold it.

View of the outside of the processing mill building.


Inside the mill showing one of several rock crushing drums.

The Fort Knox mine, like the proposed Donlin Gold mine, is what’s considered a zero discharge mine – that is during the mines’ operations.  That means that all the external sources of water (i.e., surface and ground) are prevented from entering the mine by means of diversions or dewatering and that water arising on site (e.g., rainfall, etc.) and used in the mining process is recycled and/or evaporated off – not to enter the streams below.

One difference between the Fort Knox mine and the proposed Donlin project is that Fort Knox uses two cyanide leaching techniques to extract the gold from the ore – an outdoor heap-leach facility for the lower grade ore and a contained vat leach system that extracts gold and silver from the finely crushed higher-grade ore; the Donlin project would use the latter system.

But there are several significant differences between the Fairbanks mine and the proposed Donlin – namely that mercury and acid rock drainage are non-issues at Fort Knox.

The mercury levels at the Donlin site are roughly 1-3 parts per million, much of which supposedly will be removed in liquid form from an autoclave during a processing stage or else a solid form – mercury sulfide.  However, some will eventually make its way into the tailings, which if under the right conditions could be hazardous.  Besides mercury, other considerations dealing with the tailings water is the presence of antimony, selenium, arsenic and molybdenum.

It’s been determined through geochemical analysis that approximately 7.5 % of the waste rock will have the potential to generate acid mine drainage.  Considering how much ore will be processed and stockpiled, this could prove to be a significant challenge when it comes to maintaining water quality.

What a stream affected by acid mine drainage could look like; this one is in Pennsylvania. Such a stream is devoid of most life forms, including fish.

For that reason I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see the tailings dam up close because, to me, this is one of the more critical aspects in regards to protecting our salmon and other fish resources.  Considering the magnitude of the Donlin project, there’s going to be a huge dam required to store the millions of tons of waste rock.

Looking through the bus window at the tailings lake and dam.

Because of the presence of acid generating materials coupled with selenium, antimony, molybdenum and other potentially toxic elements, another substantial concern comes from years down the road when the pit fills with water forming a huge pit lake.  The overflow from this lake will have to be treated and monitored for perpetuity…meaning forever.  To date, no mine in Alaska has ever been permitted with that type of obligation.  Forever is a long time…it definitely goes way beyond seven generations.


A permit application was submitted by Donlin Gold to the state in July and here are likely scenarios as explained by Donlin Gold employees while on the tour:

The permitting process will take at least 3-4 years.

The life of the mine approximately 27 years.

The mine will provide between 600 and 1,400 jobs, depending on what stage the mine is at.  The construction phase will take 3-4 years and will provide roughly 3,000 jobs.

The amount of power needed for the mine will be at least 4 times more than what runs Fort Knox.

The proposed natural gas pipeline is expected to take two years to construct and will go under the Kuskokwim River using a drilling technique called directional drilling.

With the natural gas pipeline, much less fuel will need to be hauled by barge up the river (approximately 80 million gallons).

On average there will be 4 barges on the river at any given time – two going up and two coming down.


The Importance Of Wood In Our Streams

Studies have found that large woody debris (LWD) is one of the most important sources of providing crucial fish habitat in rivers – especially for juveniles.  Several studies have shown a reduction in fish numbers upon removal of woody material.  Although the majority of these studies were associated with commercial logging related activities in the Pacific Northwest, the removal of wood for any reason can negatively influence productivity in similar ways.

A key function of LWD is that it contributes to what biologists refer to as habitat complexity; basically, the more complex a system is – the better for the fish.

The highly complex Chukowan River, a tributary of the Holitna

In smaller streams the majority of the pools (i.e., deeper water areas) and slack water areas can be formed by large woody debris; juvenile salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and grayling require this high quality cover because it offers protection from predators such as osprey, otter and kingfishers.

A young Dolly Varden with several juvenile salmon hiding out from predators

Young salmon taking refuge from the many threats stream life poses

In rivers such as the Holokuk, the Aniak, the Holitna, the George and Oskawalik, overhead wood provides protection for adult fish from bears, eagles, osprey and other predators.

A cottonwood with rootwad provides cover for small and large fish in the Holokuk

Sometimes the influence of such cover may be subtle.  For example, many young salmon maintain territories that they vigorously defend from competitors.  They do this through aggressive behavior initiated by the sight of another fish in their territory.  Logs and branches block the vision of nearby fish and divide the habitat into smaller territories, allowing more fish to occupy a given area of stream.  Woody material in streams is especially vital for providing protection from high water velocities and turbulence during flooding events, creating eddies and backwaters which act as refuge areas for young fish in an otherwise hostile environment.

This wood and the current from higher water created this ideal juvenile rearing spot.

You can see on that last picture a few rings from juvenile salmon.  These areas warm up quicker than the river itself – which allows for the young fish to grow rapidly.  In essence it can be considered a micro-habitat.

Although the relative importance of woody material decreases with increasing channel width for large rivers like the Kuskokwim, wood in the Kuskokwim increases the complexity along channel edges and in the side channels.  It also plays a role in the creation of islands that adds to the complexity at that larger scale.

Why bring this subject up when most of our streams are naturally complex?  Because, as the price of heating fuel rises, more and more people are heating their homes with wood stoves and furnaces.  An enticing source of firewood can be the immense log jams in many of our local rivers.  A good number of people are going out and cutting up these jams, rafting substantial quantities of wood downstream to their homes or businesses.

Here's two trees that have been cut in the mouth of the Holokuk that would have provided habitat some day.

Obviously then, the removal of wood from jams and along the banks contributes to a reduction in the amount of large woody debris, and results in a loss of complexity in salmon spawning and rearing streams.  I don’t want to insinuate that wood should never be taken from any waters; wood coming down the Yukon and Kuskokwim is definitely fair game.  Firewood gatherers, however, should use discretion when collecting wood, particularly from streams that provide spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and other species.  Even standing dead trees relatively close to the bank that are likely to fall into the stream should be left untouched for, sooner or later, they’ll end in up providing critical fish habitat.

It’s been said that a hungry man will eat the last fish and a cold man will burn the last piece of wood.  With the poor returns of king salmon this year – and after last year’s brutal winter – let’s hope we never have to confront either possibility.