Conservation deal imperils Pebble mine

By Ariel Wittenberg | 06/08/2021 01:37 PM EDT

A key Alaska Native corporation has entered a conservation deal that likely dooms the Pebble mine.

Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed.

Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed. EPA/Flickr

A key Alaska Native corporation has entered a conservation deal that likely dooms the Pebble mine.

The Pedro Bay Corp. has long opposed the mine. Now it has entered into an agreement with the Conservation Fund to place three conservation easements on 44,000 acres of surface estate land for $18.3 million. The agreement was approved by 90% of the Pedro Bay shareholders.

"This transaction supports the values of our community members by protecting their land, their subsistence and their traditional way of life," Pedro Bay Corp. CEO Matt McDaniel said. "This is an opportunity that will provide our community benefits and economic value in perpetuity."


The easements will cover three areas around Knutson Creek, Iliamna River and Pile River, protecting intact sockeye salmon spawning habitat that was threatened by Pebble’s planned northern transportation corridor that would be used to transport ore from the copper and gold extraction project. The terms of the easement prohibit any right-of-way agreements with the mine and include restrictions on development.

Now that Pedro Bay shareholders have approved the agreement, the Conservation Fund is under contract to raise the necessary funds to finance the agreement and will provide an additional $500,000 to the nonprofit Pedro Bay Benefits Corp. for shareholder education and scientific research. The group has already launched a fundraising campaign for the easements.

"Protecting this magnificent, vital landscape with our Alaska Native partners will not only conserve over 44,000 acres of the world’s most critical salmon habitat, it also will honor the Indigenous guardianship and sustainable subsistence practiced by the people of Pedro Bay for generations. Getting this project across the goal line will require a strong, collective commitment from people across the United States," the Conservation Fund President and CEO Larry Selzer said.

The easement comes as calls mount for EPA to veto the Pebble mine because it would destroy more than 3,000 acres of wetlands and dozens of miles of streams throughout the Bristol Bay watershed, home to Alaska’s strongest salmon fishery. The Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble’s Clean Water Act permit application last fall, a decision the company is appealing.

Pebble LP spokesman Mike Heatwole said the company is focusing on its appeal rather than the conservation easement news.

"Our focus remains on working with the US Army Corps of Engineers as it conducts its administrative appeal of the Pebble Project Record of Decision," he wrote in an email. "This recent development hasn’t really changed that focus in any way."

For its part, the Pedro Bay Corp. has long opposed the Pebble mine, even asking the Army Corps not to consider the northern transportation corridor option for the mine since the corporation would not give permission for its land to be used (Greenwire, Feb. 28, 2019).

Speaking to E&E News in 2019, Pedro Bay President Rayn Aaberg explained how many residents of the village of Pedro Bay, located on the northern side of Lake Iliamna, including the corporation’s shareholders, "live a subsistence lifestyle" and depend on catching enough salmon in the summer to provide food throughout the rest of the year.

"Anything that threatens the subsistence lifestyle, from noise from trucks to a slurry pipeline leaking into streams, is of great concern for us," Aaberg said then.