Notes From The 2012 Alaska Forum On The Environment

I attended the Alaska Forum on the Environment the week of Feb. 6-10, and here is a list of the sessions attended with some notes describing their pertinence.  Besides attending the sessions, the networking was very beneficial.  I was also able to meet with several federal employees that I’ve been working with concerning several of our projects.

On Wednesday I met with Ryan Maroney with NRCS and discussed the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) projects and our plans to fulfill our obligations with the timber harvest scheduled over the next few months.  Ryan suggested we fill out an application for the high tunnels where NRCS would reimburse us for a portion of the cost (Unfortunately we were not awarded the Community Environmental Demonstration Grant that I submitted a proposal for).  We are hoping to grow our own seedlings in the high tunnel that will then be planted as part of our EQIP obligation.  Ryan said he has been in touch with Fritz Grenfell from Bethel who is growing some test seedlings in Bethel this winter.

AK Forum sessions I attended:

  • Realities of Kinetic Hydropower on Most of the Yukon River.  This was a good session because there have been several attempts to test hydropower in Ruby, Eagle and in the Tanana River.  All systems were hampered by woody debris, but the one in the Tanana (which was featured in this session) was affected least because it worked very much like a fish wheel; the others worked on a vertical axis and operated several feet further down in the water column.  The Tanana unit was fabricated on-site with local materials and quite sturdy compared to the pre-fabbed turbines.

I discussed the pro’s and cons of each type of turbine with Martin Leonard who actually worked on the Ruby turbine while working with the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council.  Martin, from Bethel, has worked all across the state on various renewable energy projects (e.g., wind, hydro & solar).  He knows, and introduced me to, several of the players with whom I submitted a recent proposal to; one acquaintance was Brian Hirsch with the U.S. Dept. of Energy/Office of Indian Energy.

  • Mining & Water QualityAcid rock drainage and dissolved metals.

Bob Loeffler with UAA, previously with DNR, discussed the various methods/techniques the mining industry uses to address potential acid drainage concerns.  One of the statements I picked up on was that liners are not forever.  Hmmm.  He also said that the state has never permitted any mines where the water will have to be monitored for perpetuity.  But it seems that several proposed mines may fall into that category…including Donlin.

  • Hazardous Waste Identification and Handling for Rural Alaska Villages

Two EPA employees described how to identify, categorize, consolidate, package and ship hazardous wastes.

  • Aggressive Plants, Fish & Sea Squirts: Invasive Species in Fresh & Salt Water

One aquatic invasive plant – Elodea – has been documented in three Anchorage lakes, including Sand Lake, which is used by floatplanes (it’s only a matter of time before they transport it to some remote location).  It’s also thick in and around Chena Slough in Fairbanks and in one lake near Cordova.  This is not good!  ADF&G is working hard (and spending quite a bit of $$) to reduce the pike that have been introduced on the Kenai Peninsula.  They have altered ecosystems by consuming most, if not all, sticklebacks and greatly reduced rainbow trout and salmon populations.  ADF&G is focusing on a few lakes where a unique strain of Arctic char resides.

  • Renewable Energy in Rural Alaska

Brian Hirsch (see kinetic energy discussion) presented along with Meera Kohler with AVEC (Alaska Village Electric Cooperative).   Moderating this session was the Deputy Secretary of the Dept. of Interior.  One of the main challenges of energy producers on the road system is tying their systems into the grid.  So far, we don’t have to worry about that.  Maintenance of systems in rural Alaska is a problem, mostly because of a lack of expertise.  However, Martin Leonard has been training local specialists.

  • Scenes From Coming Attractions: Mineral Explorers and Developers

Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse with NovaGold & a biologist with the Pebble Partnership gave presentations.  Van Nieuwenhuyse spoke mostly about the Ambler development up north.  I asked him what the potential was for smaller operations being more viable once the Donlin project builds much of the non-existent infrastructure (I was referring to the Holokuk and Buckstock/Aniak drainages).  He said that he wasn’t aware of any promising exploration work.  I also asked about the need for limestone at Donlin to offset the acid generating waste rock, and he said that they would likely bring it in from off-site.  I asked if the Holitna was a possible source and he insinuated that it wasn’t likely.

  • GPS Mapping For Geographical Information Systems on a Budget

I learned some tricks that will help with the biological monitoring and physical habitat quantification of the Holokuk River.

  • Water Quality Sampling in Rural Alaska

I talked with Ryan Toohey (PhD with Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council – one of the presenters) about our past data collection efforts from the Kuskokwim and various tribs (including the Holokuk).  I’ll be sending him the data to see whether or not we’ll be able to use any of it (if you recall, our meter wasn’t properly functioning much of the time).

  • Mercury In The Environment – An Introduction to Sources, Exposure and Health in Alaska

I attended several sessions on mercury (just prior to the Forum I submitted a proposal to monitor mercury deposition in the village).  Although we are getting mercury from Asian coal-fired power plants and are dealing with the remnants of the Kolmakof and Red Devil mines, not all mercury is harmful.  It is only when it is methylated, and the methylation process is not fully understood; that’s when bacteria acts on inorganic mercury to turn it into organic.  There is an ongoing study in the Yukon River drainage assessing the mercury levels, and one location where it was found was in an old dredged stream channel.  The presenter, a USGS scientist, believed that the dredging activity contributed to the triggering of the methylation process.  This has me wondering what levels of methyl mercury might be found in the area around NYAC.

The recent fish consumption advisories of the middle Kuskokwim resulting from the Red Devil study on pike and lush were discussed.

  • Shaping Fisheries: Skills for Participating in the Public Process

This session discussed public involvement in the management of fisheries.

  • Climate, Game Management & Subsistence Hunting

This session started out with a background previous predator control efforts by the state and Fish & Wildlife Service over the past 35 years.  Years ago there were bounties on Dolly Varden and hawks – things that would never fly now.  Then changes in wind patterns was looked at for disrupting subsistence opportunities in the Wainwright area.

  • EPA Region 10 Tribal Program and Funding Opportunities

This session provided an introduction to EPA and Region 10’s Tribal Program, and an overview of the agency’s grant programs.

  • Mercury, Permafrost, and Climate Change

Large stores of mercury are bound up in the permafrost from natural sources (e.g., volcanoes and forest fires) as well as far away human sources (e.g., Eurasian coal-fired power plants).  With climate change much of that mercury is being exposed and has the potential of being methylated and getting into the food chain.  I had really wished I had attended these presentations prior to submitting my mercury-monitoring proposal two weeks ago!

  • USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Partnership Project

The NRCS has worked with several Alaska tribes in forming Tribal Conservation Districts – Kwethluk being one of them.  These Districts are a way of devising a comprehensive plan to preserve and enhance the natural resources of the area and sustain the traditional subsistence way of life.  This may be something that Napaimute would like to pursue in the future, although we are already pretty much doing that.

  • What’s Happening at Red Devil Mine?  A Talking Circle For Interested Kuskokwim Communities

This was a well-attended meeting, with people from up and down the Kuskokwim as well as representatives from Calista, Donlin Gold and DEC (Dept. of Environmental Conservation) being present.  The BLM (Jim Fincher, Mike McCrum and Matt Varner) gave an overview of where things stand today, and what we can expect for possible remediation and public meetings.  One Calista geologist was very interested in knowing how the state devised the fish consumption advisories, and how the levels in local fish compared to other Kuskokwim fish and tuna in the oceans that also have high levels of mercury.   

  • Friday – Film Festival

On Friday morning I attended the film festival and watch movies about changing environmental conditions due to climate change and their affects on Alaskan’s subsistence way life, marine debris scattered about the oceans, the village of Craig that has been conducting a successful campaign with collecting washed up debris, and local village efforts to improve landfills and address other local environmental issues.

On Friday afternoon I attended a tele-symposium at UAA titled: A synchronous failure of juvenile Pacific salmon and herring in the Strait of Georgia and the poor return of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River in 2009.  Dick Beamish, a highly respected Canadian scientist, was in Juneau presenting information on the problems in the Fraser River.  The Fraser River is a huge producer of salmon and one that is not highly impacted from dams like the Columbia River is.  However, it has seen numerous developmental activities that have affected the salmon runs.  Besides typical land development, there are also aquaculture activities nearby that have some concerned that sea lice and the concomitant control efforts might have some negative influence on salmon.

Like the Kuskokwim and our king numbers, there are fluctuations in salmon populations occurring that are not readily explained.  Much of the unknowns do occur in the ocean, although some research is shedding light on what might be the causes.


Dave Cannon

Environmental Director

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