In Alaska, Trump Doubles Down on Environmental Vandalism

In Alaska, Trump Doubles Down on Environmental Vandalism thumbnail

Of all the jobs I’ve ever watched humans do, few have seemed more appealing to me than counting salmon at the head of the Ugashik River, in Alaska. Every hour, the man charged with this duty would rouse himself from his cabin in that vast and sweeping wilderness, climb a ladder into what looked like a lifeguard’s chair, and then stare down at the stream—with a clicker in his hand, like an usher at a movie theatre. Each time he saw the flash of a fish passing upstream, he’d count it. Several times a day he’d send his count to headquarters and then climb back down—assuming, of course, that grizzlies had not appeared to do some fishing, in which case he would wait in his perch.

It is well known that the world’s fisheries are in hideous decline, a problem that will grow even worse as oceans continue to warm. But some Alaskan salmon are an exception to the rule—because of that guy in the chair with the clicker. His job is to make sure that enough salmon make it upstream to spawn. The biologists he reports to have worked out complex models of the state’s rivers; they know how many fish are required to keep the runs strong. After an initial early fishing season, when they’re convinced that plenty of fish have made it through, they’ll open—maybe only for a few hours—the fishing season downstream in Bristol Bay.

And when they do, it is chaos—dozens and dozens of high-powered boats milling around in a narrow strip of water, inching toward the front of an invisible boundary like runners crowding the starting line of a race. When the time comes, they drop their nets and surge forward; it’s possible to catch thousands of salmon in minutes. It’s old-fashioned cowboy capitalism, complete with trash-talking on the radio—but when the fishing window closes again, it all shuts down immediately. That’s partly because state troopers make sure of it, but mostly it’s because everyone understands the basic logic: salmon are the golden eggs of Bristol Bay, and if you don’t let enough fish back upstream, then you’ve killed the proverbial goose. It’s the resource equivalent of wearing a mask and staying six feet apart: biology sets the limits, and Alaskans have long obeyed them, with good results.

There are few enough success stories like this in the world. Which is why it’s even more aggravating than usual to watch the Trump Administration try to mess things up. Some years ago, a big mining corporation proposed building the Pebble Mine—to extract gold, copper, and other metals—on the headwaters of some of the streams that feed into Bristol Bay. The open pit mine would be more than a mile square, and a third of a mile deep (imagine that), surrounded by dams holding back the highly toxic products of the mining process. Not surprisingly, the Obama-era E.P.A. decided that this was a bad idea and blocked the development of the mine. Not surprisingly, President Trump met with Alaska’s Republican governor, who cheerfully announced that the President had assured him that he was “doing everything he can to work with us on our mining concerns.” Not surprisingly, the Trump E.P.A. chose not to block the project.

I say not surprisingly, because, of course, the Trump Administration has done everything in its power to gut the country’s environmental regulations—and with more success than it’s had in many other policy realms. On Monday, the Administration announced that it will start selling drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the country’s largest, by December, 2021. The move reverses more than a half-century of efforts to block drilling in the country’s largest remaining wilderness. Environmental groups will go to court to halt Trump’s move, which shows the likely irreversible damage that the Administration is inflicting.

But in the case of Pebble Mine, the outcome was probably overdetermined. It’s hard to imagine that the President would be much impressed by, say, the remarkable science showing that the decomposing bodies of salmon that have finished spawning fertilize the forests lining the streams. You can literally find nutrients from marine algae from the open ocean in the wood of these pine trees. Alaska’s salmon run ranks with the migration of the monarchs and the wandering of the caribou on the list of the world’s epoch events. Endangering it to get some “precious” metals requires a fundamental misunderstanding of the word. But it is clear what the President values: among the most famous pre-Presidency pictures of Trump are those from his hundred-million-dollar penthouse, invariably described as “decorated with 24k. gold.” Salmon, on the other hand, is the thing that your wife orders at a benefit dinner.

Still, there have been some interesting recent developments. The President’s unflinchingly loyal eldest son, Donald, Jr., earlier this month tweeted the opinion that, “as a sportsman who has spent plenty of time in the area,” the “headwaters of Bristol Bay and surrounding fishery are too unique and fragile to take any chances with.” It’s possible that Donald, Jr., is, in fact, looking forward to killing large animals in this vicinity—but it’s also possible that political reality is beginning to weigh on the Pebble Mine project. Despite strong support from corporate boosters like the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, many Alaskans oppose it. The Independent senatorial candidate Al Gross, who is running to take on the Republican incumbent Dan Sullivan—and who, as his campaign ads point out, has actually killed a grizzly in self-defense “after it snuck up on him”—is an outspoken opponent of the mine. He’s doing well enough that the Cook Political Report recently shifted the race from Solid to Likely Republican. Some have started to speculate that Sullivan may need to oppose the mine as well.

But it’s increasingly clear that the only way to actually block the project will be—as with so many issues—to elect Joe Biden in November. (Even that won’t prevent a last-minute vandalism spree, as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge announcement showed.) Earlier this month, Biden said in a statement that the headwater of this great fishery “is no place for a mine. The Obama-Biden Administration reached that conclusion when we ran a rigorous, science-based process in 2014, and it is still true today.” Indeed. Bristol Bay is a place for salmon—and for very careful people.

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