On my first trip to Alaska, one thing that popped into my head was that it was like going back in time. The wilderness seemed so vast that I imagined it must have been similar to landscape of my home on the East Coast as it was first seen by early European settlers. The colonists foraged, fished and farmed that abundance for themselves. They also saw their valuable resources extracted to support their home countries, like the stands of white pines that were some of the only trees large enough to function as masts for the British Navy.
In the case of the white pine trees, they became so scarce that the British made it against the law for anyone but the king's government to cut them down. In 1772 the law led to the "Pine Tree Riot" in New Hampshire, when a mill owner in Weare was caught with illegal pines. According to a Weare Historical Society account of the riot, when the sheriff arrived to collect the fine, the mill owner and 20-plus men blackened their faces with soot, and then they beat the sheriff with switches to "their hearts' content" and crossed out any references to the illegal trees on his ledger. They beat his deputy with floorboards they pulled from the room above. That act of defiance, like the coming Boston Tea Party, was one of the events that helped set the stage for American Revolution, says the historical society.
I love stories like that because they show how much things stay the same. The problems of sharing natural resources are of course well known to fishermen, who must share their catch with each other. Often you must also share access to those resources with industries like wind power. It can be difficult to know what's right. Not everyone can be a winner in the competition for resources. So who gets to decide the winners and losers?
In Alaska, another mine proposal raises this question. The developers of the proposed Chuitna strip mine, about 45 miles west of Anchorage, would like to dig through and completely remove the upper portion of Middle Creek to reach the coal deposits beneath. It's an area that Alaska Department of Fish and Game identifies as important to salmon, according to Inletkeeper, a group rallying opposition to the mine: "PacRim's mining plan removes the entire streambed, bank-to-bank to a depth of 350 feet destroying the underlying water flow paths essential for overwinter survival of salmon eggs. This level of impact will fundamentally alter the underlying hydrology to a point where stream reconstruction is fundamentally impossible; Middle Creek will be destroyed."
PacRim, the would-be developers, make a point to note that the project would benefit local economies by creating up to 500 jobs during construction and up to 350 jobs during the life of the mine. But it's also clear that the major winners are not Alaskans. According to Inletkeeper, PacRim is a Delaware corporation owned by Texas investors. The coal they intend to extract would not go to Alaska, which does not depend heavily on coal for energy, but to China and other markets that do.
I think the answer here is simple: the long-term costs outweigh the short-term gains. In this case we can't afford to sell off Alaska's salmon resources forever to the highest bidder.
Alaskans have until April 9 to tell their governor and the state's Department of Natural Resources what they think of the project. The "riot" of opposition this time is a more civilized undertaking and includes opinions voiced by Alaskans in the media and work by organizations like Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Inletkeeper.