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 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT