Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Alaska's salmon, more precious than gold

By Paul Begala, CNN Contributor
updated 5:42 PM EDT, Mon July 29, 2013
The author, far right, proudly displays a morning's catch on Alaska's Yentna River with his sons Charlie, left, and John.
The author, far right, proudly displays a morning's catch on Alaska's Yentna River with his sons Charlie, left, and John.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Begala says Alaska boasts a pristine salmon fishing region
  • He says Bristol Bay is threatened by proposal to build big mine for copper, gold
  • Begala says EPA found it would threaten streams and wetlands
  • He urges EPA to use its authority to block the plan for the mine

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

(CNN) -- It's a thrill for me as a fisherman to see a wild Alaskan silver salmon jump out of the water with my fly in his mouth. And it's an even greater thrill for me as a father to see my eldest son guide his old man and his little brother into a honey hole full of salmon on a remote Alaskan river.

I experienced both of those thrills this summer, as you can see from the mile-wide grin on my face in this picture.

For three generations my family has come to Alaska to chase wild salmon. The Chinook, the Sockeye, the Coho, the Chum and the Humpback are graceful, powerful beauties with an unerring GPS for home. They're also tasty -- and among the healthiest sources of protein you can find. Wild salmon (the ultimate free-range meat) is high in healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, and has been found to prevent heart disease and diabetes in Native Alaskans -- even those who are obese. No wonder First Alaskans have been happily harvesting salmon for at least 40 centuries.

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

Of course, humans aren't the only species who know the joy of salmon. I have had the humble honor of sharing an Alaskan stream with a bevy of Brown Bears. Without my expensive waders or flyrod, lacking even polarized sunglasses, they out-fish me every time. I have seen eagles -- mammoth golden eagles and majestic bald eagles, dive-bomb rivers to pick off smaller salmon, and choruses of cacophonous sea gulls scavenge salmon carcasses on a riverbank. And I caught the biggest rainbow trout of my life in Alaska, where the species thrives on salmon eggs.

Salmon is the focal point of so much of the economy in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Salmon contribute $1.5 billion annually and 14,000 jobs to the region's economy. For good reason, the Chinook Salmon is the state fish of Alaska.

And yet this magnificent, abundant, nutritious, valuable resource is threatened. A partnership between two companies -- London-based Anglo American, which has a spotty environmental record and Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty -- wants to build one of the world's largest mines to extract copper, gold and molybdenum at the headwaters of two of the most significant rivers in Bristol Bay.

Anglo American says it is committed to a goal of minimizing "any impact to the local environment by designing, operating and closing all of our operations in an environmentally responsible manner."

But the mammoth Pebble Mine would, according to an exhaustive review conducted by the EPA, destroy up to 90 miles of streams and as much as nearly 5,000 acres of wetlands right smack-dab in the middle of one of the largest, most productive and most valuable sockeye fisheries on earth.

The Wild Salmon Center and Trout Unlimited have looked at this proposal as well. The destruction they foresee is biblical: up to 10.8 billion tons of rock waste. If you were to load all that waste onto train cars, the train would stretch to the moon...five times.

The mine would require 9 miles of dams, some of them taller than the Washington Monument. God forbid one of them failed in earthquake-prone Alaska.

"The problem with Pebble is its size, type and location," said Tim Bristol of Trout Unlimited. Bristol notes that the mine would be far bigger than all the other mines in Alaska combined, digging down nearly a mile into the earth straddling the two major drainages of Bristol Bay, the Nushagak and Kvichak, two of the world's greatest producers of sockeye and Chinook salmon. The ore body itself contains a huge amount of acid-generating waste rock. "Imagine a lake of dilute sulfuric acid," he says, making my skin crawl. "A sulfuric lake that must be contained and monitored essentially forever. And this would be happening in one of the more seismically active places anywhere. It's the last place to mine not the first."

To be sure, there are other voices in the debate. The Washington Post editorial board, has hypothesized that the mining companies "can, for example, build extremely high and strong tailings dams, engineering the whole project beyond what standard industry practices would dictate." And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerful lobby for big business, has mocked the EPA's dire warning, saying the agency has let its imagination run wild.

Still, a clear majority of Alaskans said they opposed Pebble Mine in a poll sponsored by the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which represents more than 9,000 Eskimio, Aleut, and Athabascans with ancestral ties to Bristol Bay. Perhaps Alaskans see this as a situation in which a handful of business people with un-calloused hands and expensive suits get the gold mine, but Alaskans get the shaft. All so some corporate consortium can sell more copper and gold to the Chinese.

Fortunately, under the Clean Water Act, the EPA has the authority to stop the devastation before it's too late. All they have to do is use it.

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA can block the mine if it would have an "unacceptable adverse impact" on (among other things) "fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife or recreational areas." EPA should use the power Congress gave it to protect Bristol Bay. The stakes are historic. Just as Teddy Roosevelt is remembered for saving Yellowstone, President Obama and his new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy can go down in history as the visionary leaders who saved the salmon.

Even if you have never heard a fishing reel sing as line is stripped out by a wild salmon; even if you've never heard your child scream "Fish on!"; if you've never felt the pull of a fighting fish or even tasted succulent fresh Alaskan salmon, you have a stake in stopping Pebble Mine. An environmental stake, an economic stake, a moral stake.

Years ago my father shook his head and grinned as I stood in chest-deep water in 39-degree weather and caught my first Alaskan salmon on a fly in the driving rain. This summer it was my turn for my heart to swell with parental pride as my sons out-fished me in Alaska. So I feel a special obligation to ensure that magnificent habitat is around for their children and grandchildren and on and on for another 4,000 years.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 2:04 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT