August, 2005: I lay my camera carefully in the tundra, then ran back and flopped on my belly, smiling in a frame of reindeer moss and berries. A helicopter roared past, dangling something from a cable beneath it. It had been three days since I talked to another human, but I was surrounded by the sound of their machines: the constant thwack of rotors, the rumbling of drill rigs, and the roar of small planes.
I tucked the camera into the dry bag that hung around my neck, and headed out into the swampy flat that marked a proposed tailings lake, snapping photos between the squalls of rain. For dozens of square miles around me, the rolling wet tundra had been engulfed by an idea bigger than anything this part of the state had ever seen: the Pebble Mine proposal
I wasn’t really a photographer. The digital SLR camera was brand-new to me only a few months earlier. I took pages of detailed notes in a waterproof journal, but I wasn’t yet a writer. I wasn’t an activist. At the time, I wasn’t even an Alaskan. I was just an ex-grad student – a newly-minted Master of Molecular and Cellular Biology looking for a new path in life.
The New York Times introduced me to Pebble Mine, in a 2005 article that shocked me mostly with what I didn’t know. A giant mine proposal, at the headwaters of a giant salmon fishery – how had I missed such a big issue?
Type “Pebble Mine” into Google today and you’ll be inundated with protest pages and mine company pages, a Wikipedia article, magazine spreads, and news pieces from across the world. There are photos of the prospect, maps galore, photos of people standing with anti-mine banners, photos of drill rigs and photos of salmon… There are movies to watch, a National Geographic piece to read, and a dozen different organizations to join.
In 2005, there was none of that. Pebble Mine’s backers were planning to move to permitting in less than two years. But it seemed like no one had even heard of their plan. Information was difficult to come by. Talking to a director of a prominent conservation group focused on Alaska, I had a hard time convincing him that Pebble actually existed. People cared, but they were few, scattered, and no one was paying them much attention. I couldn’t even find a picture of the place.
So I thought I’d better go take a few.
Three days earlier, I’d walked here alone from Nondalton Village, not sure what I might find. As I walked into the rolling flats of the proposed tailings lake, the wind and rain picked up, whipping the tiny plants into photographic blurs, and spattering water across my lens. The plants hugged the ground in a close-knit mat, surviving by being low and crowded. I followed caribou trails around the brushy tangles, circling Frying Pan Lake, and hiking into the hills on either side of the valley.
I’d just spent the whole day hiking in what could become a giant tailings lake. How could everything around me – literally everything I could see, and everything I walked through all day, disappear into a toxic muck pond?
At the end of 2005, typing “Pebble Mine” into Google would bring you straight to me. I had exactly zero funding, and only crude web skills. Yet somehow, my on-the-ground expedition, photographs, research and writing had turned my page into the dominant source of Pebble Mine info on the web. Requests started flooding in. I heard from people who wanted to use my photos, for everything from posters to magazines to college projects. From people who had questions, who wanted to know what they could do, who wanted to know more…
Who was I to be in this position? I tried to live up to it, painstakingly compiling facts and news articles, attending Northern Dynasty’s meetings in Seattle, and reading long papers about mining issues.
June, 2006: I walked out of Nondalton Village, this time with Hig and my friend Tom in tow. The tundra was painted with the pastel yellows and pinks of tiny wildflowers and tinged with the dull, muted tones of ground that has only recently emerged from the snow.
Even from this closest village, the Pebble valley was still a day and a half’s walk away. As we approached the first of the exploration drill rigs, a trio of caribou trotted past gracefully. A helicopter roared across the dark grey sky, tilting and bouncing in the punishing wind. Trash littered the ground near the trampled and muddy pits of old drill rig sites. I crouched in the grass with my telephoto lens, shooting drill rigs and hoses, and the sludge of rock slurry spilling out over the tundra.
Our mission on this journey was to follow the water. As salmon swim, and as toxins might flow, we spent a month traveling almost 500 miles under our own power, hiking and packrafting the length of both watersheds that connect the Pebble site to Bristol Bay.
My natural shyness had been countered by my bolder companions. As we passed through villages, we began to talk to the locals – about the area, about our trip, about the mine. Each person we spoke to seemed keen to tell us that their entire village was against the mine. They were concerned about the fish, and skeptical of the mining company’s promises.
Here in the Bristol Bay watersheds, everyone knew about Pebble. Everyone had strong opinions. But the rest of the state and the country was just starting to hear of it.
March, 2008: A wind swept our skis down the frozen surface of Sixmile Lake. As we approached Nondalton Village a cluster of low, colorful buildings emerged from the bare birch and shaggy spruce on its shores. The small forms of people appeared on the edge of the ice, approaching to greet us.
“Come in! There’s moose stew and all kinds of food.”
By now, we were returning to familiar ground. We dumped our snowy backpacks in a corner of the Nondalton community center, underneath a poster of my photographs from 2005, and lined up for styrofoam bowls of moose stew.
Anti-mine symbols graced buttons and baseball caps around the room—a neat red slash through the words “Pebble Mine.” “No Pebble Mine” posters covered the walls, the professional work of an Anchorage environmental group intermingled with the colorful hand-drawn efforts of local children. Nunamta Aulukestai, a multi-village organization ?rmly against the mining proposal, had invited a panel of scientists and a state official to talk about the potential impacts of a mine.
Somewhere in the past few years, things had changed. Not just here in the villages, but across the state. More and more, Pebble was even popping up in national and international media. Pebble Mine wasn’t the issue no one had heard of anymore. It was the issue everyone had an opinion on. It was the issue that dominated commercials and ballot initiatives, and seemed better known than any other resource issue in the state.
Tom Crafford (state DNR large mine coordinator), stood up in front of the small crowd in the Nondalton community center, explaining the setup at Red Dog Mine, where a water-treatment plant sits at the outlet of the tailings storage lake, perpetually deacidifying and detoxifying the water before it is released, making it safe for downstream life. When the mine closes, the treatment plant will still be there, treating the water in perpetuity. Other maintenance will need to be performed perpetually as well, keeping the toxic tailings stored in a dammed-off lake, forever sequestered away from water and air. This is what the future of Pebble Mine might look like
Hig broke in with a question: “What exactly do you mean by ‘in perpetuity?’”
“Forever,” Crafford responded.
“When the United States no longer exists, when glaciers roll over the landscape in another ten thousand years, some guy is going to be out there with a bulldozer maintaining the dams around the tailings storage lake? To a geologist, forever doesn’t even make sense!”
Forever is impossible. Whether it happened in one year, ten years, a hundred years, or a thousand, those tailings would eventually pollute the downstream watersheds. Failure was a given. We were just taking bets on when it might happen, and how rapid a failure it might be.
In some ways, we’ve moved away from Pebble Mine in the last few years, broadening our focus to encompass issues that haven’t yet reached everyone’s attention. Against the backdrop of air-supported National Geographic photo trips and constant television ads, my home-grown efforts seemed paltry. The world may not need my photos of Pebble any longer. But there are questions that no one else is asking.
I haven’t been back to Pebble since 2008. But Hig’s visited the area every summer, digging trenches, doing high-resolution GPS surveys, searching for evidence of faults and earthquakes. Even in the 30,000 page baseline data document Pebble Mine recently released, there is only a paltry 3 pages covering seismic risk. And in those 3 pages, there’s not much worth looking at. For other industrial projects in seismically active areas, companies pay for detailed surveys that identify faults and quantify risk. Here, Hig has spent yeas doing the only original science on seismic hazard risk in the Pebble Mine region.
In the last seven years, I’ve watched awareness and outreach on the Pebble Mine issue blossom far beyond what I could have possibly imagined. But that question Hig asked in Nondalton still hangs unanswered. It’s an issue that comes up in large mine projects across the state and the world. As far as I know, there is no solution to the problem of permanent tailings storage other than what we were told by the PR rep for Red Dog mine.
“No, I don’t want to walk to the lake, I want to walk all the way to town!”
“I want to run on the road!”
“No, I need to walk very slowly!”
“I have to visit at the dump truck with the broken engine!”
“I can’t come because I’m working on putting all this snow in the sled!”
(from 10 minutes of a walk with Katmai)
As he turns 3 years old, I find that my role as a parent is shifting from porter to outdoors coach. For years, I’ve been struggling with the logistics of HOW to bring Katmai out into the woods with us. But my biggest task now is squirming my way into that toddler mind of his and making sure he LIKES IT.
Katmai walks over the shattered rock that covers this part of Malaspina Glacier, and Mt. St. Elias provides a backdrop.
Last September, we watched Les’s plane buzz its way back over the vast expanse of Malaspina Glacier, leaving about a hundred miles from the nearest human, with two little kids and a ridiculously large pile of stuff. As we lashed the 95 lbs of food, 60 lbs of gear and diapers, and 19lbs of non-mobile baby onto the two mobile adults, I realized we had suddenly entered a new phase of parenthood.
Katmai was two and a half. And to get to our campsite, he would be walking. In fact, he would be carrying his own pack, with a two pound bag of raisins in it.
“Look Katmai, there’s a stream up ahead! Maybe when we get there, you can throw a rock in!”
“Why don’t you hold my hand, Katmai, and we can just walk up to those trees over there!”
“Hey Katmai, if we make it to the new campsite, you can have some dried pineapple!”
That first day, we only had to make it a quarter mile across the valley. But over the course of our entire two month expedition, we traveled around 100 miles. For most of it, both kids were passengers. But at 2.5 years old, Katmai was both a more awkward passenger, and a more reluctant one. Over that two months, he probably walked around 20 miles on his own two feet. And every single one of those miles was an exercise in patience only marginally easier (and sometimes more difficult), than carrying him.
I want our children to love the outdoors. That’s a big part of why we take them out in the first place, right? I want Katmai to throw rocks in the creek, to stare down into a deep icy hole in fascination at the water gurgling into its depths, to kick the seeding fireweed into clouds of fluff that cover his fleece suit in a layer of white, to lay on his belly picking nagoon berries, to imagine rocks into cars and logs into dinosaurs, to run in a stream, to stomp his tracks into the mud, to drink from a trickle of glacial water, to eat snow…
But sometimes, I wish he would do all those things just a little faster. Sure, kid, look at that stick for a minute. But then get up again, and walk at a reasonable hiking pace in the direction we’re going, and don’t stop again until we’ve gotten at least a little ways along. OK? Sadly, this is not how a 2 year-old’s brain works.
Every time we go out, I practice seeing the world through Katmai’s eyes. Is being 10 yards from home any reason not to spend 15 minutes digging “mouse holes”? Aren’t the details of a snow-buried devil’s club fascinating after all? I’m a wilderness lover. And I love the details of nature as well. But toddler zen does not come naturally to me. I like to move through the world, at least a little bit, watching hills and valleys move by beneath my feet, discovering places we’ve never been before. And if we followed toddler zen all the time all the time – if we ate snow from every inch of snowbank, or “fed” spruce twigs to every single driftwood “dinosaur” on the beach, we’d never get anywhere at all.
The compromise is coaxing. From my own childhood, I remember my mother parceling out M&Ms and Skittles to my brother, and playing word games with me, coaxing us along the trails of Washington’s Cascade Mountains. Scanning blogs and forums, I’ve gleaned tips and tricks from the parents of older children, from “magic energy drinks” to hide-and-seek and scavenger hunts along the trail. We aren’t giving up wilderness travel any time soon. And we won’t be able to carry our children forever. It’s a delicate balancing act, trying to gently ease a willful almost-3-year old into big-kid expectations.
“Katmai, let’s go on an adventure!”
“I don’t want to! I want to go to town!”
“But adventures to new places are really fun! Only big boys can do them. And we can go on an adventure into the trees, and we can look for tracks in the snow, and we can have warm cocoa when we’re done.”
“Will there be toys there?”
“We can bring some toys.”
“I want to bring my horses and my train engines and my cars and my bunny and my backhoe and…”
“That’s too many to carry. How about just the horses?”
Katmai clutched his plastic horses as I wrangled him into pants, snow pants, shirt, fleece, two pairs of socks, neoprene booties, elbow-length mittens, and a beautiful whaling parka with a wolverine fur ruff. And that was just the first kid. I sent him out the door, turning to stuff Lituya into a fleece, booties, and her snowsuit, while she whined and tried to wriggle away. Then I realized I wasn’t dressed for the single digit temperatures myself, and hurried to grab snow pants, gaiters, gloves, hat, and mittens, while Lituya lay immobile on the floor with her arms and legs stuck straight out, fussing at the sudden restriction. I threw Lituya on my back in the woven wrap, arranging an over-large coat over both of us.
We were ready for “adventure.” Out the door of the yurt, we turned left. Not to the trail, but into the narrow band of woods that lies behind the yurt, and the gully beyond.
“What do you think we’ll find, Katmai?”
“What are wood bugs?”
“They have tails like this, and legs, and they walk and they eat snow and they eat trees, and they’re bugs because they go on land.”
Apparently, “wood bugs” were all the scattered branches and twigs sticking up through the snow. We made slow progress from wood bug to wood bug, Katmai marveling at how more of them appeared beneath his feet as he sunk into the deep drifts. We talked about their dietary habits, pointed out their body parts, and continued into the trees.
Lituya slowly sung herself to sleep on my back as I stomped. On this January day, I was home alone with both kids. This was no intrepid glacier expedition, or major backpacking trip. Just an ordinary afternoon.
A wind came up, sending piles of fluffy snow sailing off the trees in a sudden shower of white. But in the gully, where we were, the wind was light enough that even the little ones didn’t complain.
I let Katmai choose the way, even when it led us through deep and brushier snow than the route I would have chosen. The snow was waist deep in places, and neither of us had snowshoes, so I got my own excercise by vigorously stomping down a trail good enough for Katmai to walk on. He scrambled under a log, climbed “steep mountains”, and carefully stomped his larger horse through all of it, talking about the tracks ‘Boozo the horse’ was making. We found caves for the horses to peer in, snow for them to walk in, and devils club flowers and dried out stalks of grass for them to eat.
Even here, on a tiny piece of our own property, I discovered things. I found a tree toppled in one of the fall storms, lying across the gully on our summer trail to the nettle patch. I looked at the tracks of voles and rabbits, as Katmai insisted that they were all made by “wood bugs” I lifted Katmai up the steepest parts of the slope, then I stomped a trail back down as he slid behind me.
In brush and deep snow drifts, the quarter mile took us nearly 2 hours. Back on the road, Katmai took off running in the tracks left by the road grader, exclaiming excitedly at a passing snowmachine.
I may be turning into an outdoors coach for Katmai, but my kid-carrying days are by no means over. Nearly every time I step outside, Lituya is riding on my back.
It’s hard to be a one-year-old in the winter. She’s old enough to have desires beyond watching the world from my back. But she’s too young to make any headway wearing a snowsuit on a slippery path through deep powder.
I love the snow. And at this point, carrying a 21 pound kid on my back is so ordinary I hardly notice it. But she’ll be happy to see spring.
Looking at the other children I know, I try to imagine mine at 4 and 2 years old. Then I try to imagine those 4 and 2 year olds on a 600 mile 3-month-long journey around Cook Inlet. I can’t imagine it yet. Which is only par for the course for a big adventure – especially with over a year left to plan it. Being an adventurer means always planning new challenges you can’t really imagine until you get there. Having kids means the exact same thing. So we continue our quest, working to become experts in the unexpected.
We watched this bizarre vessel get towed by on its way to Homer. Eventually it will be moved to upper Cook Inlet to drill oil and gas exploration wells.
Over half of Alaska’s electricity comes from Cook Inlet natural gas. It’s powering the computer I’m typing this on. And it’s running out. By 2017, we’re supposed to have only half of what we need, an annual shortfall of 50 billion cubic feet.
People are less worried about this now than they were just a few months ago, as new discoveries come online. But the fact remains that the easy gas is gone – what is left will be more expensive to extract, and some may not prove economic to extract at all.
Read more about the history and future of Natural Gas in Cook Inlet.
50 billion cubic feet sounds like an enormous gap. But that shortfall is only around 2% of what we’ve exported in the past 40 years. If all the gas had been kept in state, we could have filled that “production gap” for decades beyond the projected shortfall.
Why have we spent the past several decades exporting trillions of tons of natural gas, only to find ourselves suddenly scrambling for enough of the stuff to keep the lights on?
For any natural resource extraction project, there’s usually a debate. And the two sides often line up along the lines of “Now” or “Never.” The “Now” camp touts jobs and tax revenue, and the benefits of economic development. The “Never” camp points out pollution, and the negative impacts to ecosystems, communities, and other industries.
Why not? I’m not an economist, but this is something I’ve wondered about for years. If the public owns the gas and oil and metals under the land, leaving them in the ground is a form of savings account – with interest in the form of increasing resource prices. Extraction, on the other hand, really is spending the wealth – removing that resource for good.
From the oil/gas company perspective, I can understand why they probably aren’t worried about saving resources for later. They’ll do whatever brings the most profit – likely extracting the resource as quickly as possible, selling it for the highest price possible, then picking up and moving to a new spot.
From the state perspective, it’s not so simple. The state owns all the gas in Cook Inlet. Actually the public does. And the state has a constitutional mandate to use all public resources in the best interest of all Alaskans:
“The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.”
So we exported gas as quickly as possible while failing to secure an alternative source of heat and power for state residents. If new gas plays don’t work out very soon, we’ll need to turn around and start importing LNG to the same facility that exported for 40 years. Was that really the best we could do?
Alaska is a resource extraction state. How does an economy dependent on natural resources avoid a seemingly-inevitable boom and bust?
Boom and bust is how it generally works, here and in the rest of the world. Resources are discovered and quickly depleted. Then it’s either on to the next jackpot, or on to an economic decline.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some gas, oil, and metals for our kids and for future generations of Alaskans to use? All these resources will only be more valuable the longer we wait to extract them. If you’re manufacturing a product, it makes sense to step up production as demand and prices rise. But if you’re selling a finite pool of a non-renewable resource, you might get more money for your product if you parcel it out – leaving some to sell when prices rise even further.
Chances are, the techniques used to extract all our resources will only become more efficient, effective, and environmentally friendly with time. Some of the painful tradeoffs between ecosystem damage and industrial development might simply disappear in the future.
It’s not just oil and gas. Say we don’t build a Pebble Mine now. In another 100 years, maybe we’ll have mining techniques that eliminate the (impossible) necessity to safely store toxic wastes forever. Metals may be even more valuable then. Maybe we’ll have a tax structure that gives the state more value for its minerals. Wouldn’t that be better for Alaskans?
Unfortunately, such projects are approved or denied based on a flurry of paperwork and regulatory check boxes, politics, and lawsuits. Such decisions are not based on whether they represent the best use of our land and resources in the long term.
In Cook Inlet, what would have happened if we had parceled out gas leases to spread out development for our own use rather than exporting? Maybe we’d have a lot more left now to burn in our power plants and homes. But maybe it wouldn’t have worked.
Slow and steady seems like an attractive idea. But it’s possible that without the LNG exports, the oil companies wouldn’t have found Cook Inlet gas profitable to develop at all – that the export potential is what led to development of gas for in-state use. I don’t know how likely that is. Either way, a slow and steady approach would have missed all the economic activity that came from the exports.
Still, if you’re going to depend on the extraction of a non-renewable resource, you ought to have a plan for what happens when that resource runs dry. 40 years ago, Alaska could have started investing the money from lease sales and taxes in renewable energy projects for the Railbelt, rendering the eventual depletion of gas a much smaller problem. But we didn’t. Now, funding for those projects will be much more of a struggle and time is also a problem as the gas runs out.
And the gas in Cook Inlet is dwarfed by a much bigger problem: Alaska’s entire economy and government is dependent on North Slope oil. We’ve done OK at saving some of the money in anticipation of that oil eventually being gone. But have we done enough to develop an economy beyond the raw extraction of resources?
From oil to metal to fish, Alaska has a lot of natural resources, including some in decline, and some yet untapped. Can we learn from our own (and the rest of the world’s) mistakes, and treat the rest of them like the irreplaceable savings account that they are?