ILIAMNA -- In the vast, green, windswept tundra of Southwest Alaska, the planet's greatest remaining stronghold of wild salmon, an open-pit mine of staggering proportions is being hatched.
Right now it's just a cluster of buildings in a remote valley, where the silence is broken by the buzz of helicopters bringing workers to collect core samples. But the proposed Pebble mine could become the largest open-pit mine on the continent, and the Environmental Protection Agency figures it could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands.
The deposit of copper and gold is a potential $300 billion bonanza in a place where good jobs can be scarce. The mine's promise of opportunity sits uneasily, though, in a region that produces half the world's wild red salmon and sustains indigenous Alaska Native cultures that have been tied to the fish for at least 4,000 years.
"When the mine happens, it will destroy a culture," said Jack Allen, the owner of Nushagak Cab in the Bristol Bay fishing community of Dillingham. "Fishing is not just about money here; it's life."
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