Save Our Salmon — and the Rest of our Economy
By John Mackinnon
The headline read "Bristol Bay red salmon run smashes records" — a record-breaking year for the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery. That's a wonderful thing.
I love it when I see a headline like that. It means we're producing something. We're bringing dollars into Alaska from other parts of the world. It's the dollars from Outside that make Alaska's economy run. Those Outside dollars will circulate in Alaska with a multiplier effect and a cascade of benefits to all Alaskans.
Fisheries are an important piece of our economy. The need to make certain that our salmon fisheries remain an important piece of our economy is something we all agree on. But it's not all about salmon. Fisheries, oil, tourism, mining – all are significant legs of the non-government economy in Alaska. We need to provide an environment that will ensure all those pieces of Alaska's economy grow and prosper.
Oil has been the main driver of Alaska's economy for the past 35 years. Although significantly diminished because of low commodity prices, oil will continue to be No. 1 in our economy for the foreseeable future. I remember shortly after oil began to flow in the late '70s, they were talking about a 20-year life for the pipeline. We celebrate the 40th anniversary this year and the outlook is good for many years to come, provided we don't mess things up.
When Alaska fell into a deep recession in 1986, there was just one large operating mine in Alaska – the coal mine in Healy. In the 30 years since, I've watched the large mines develop across the state. They have all been met by many residents with the fear, uncertainty and doubt that are incited by Outside environmental groups. Those fears never materialized and today there are six large-scale mines in Alaska that are helping buffer the impacts of the current recession.
When the Red Dog Mine was moving through the development process, unprecedented efforts went into maximizing local resident and NANA shareholder hire. Red Dog is now moving into its second generation of workers. Ask many young men and women in the region (mining is not just a man's job) what they want to do when they grow up and you'll often hear, "Work at Red Dog!"
The Donlin mine is the next one in the permitting queue, and the Red Dog model has been improved with Calista's efforts with Donlin. I see great potential for improving the lives of many people in the region.
I've looked at the proposed pro-salmon initiative and its counterpart in the Legislature – House Bill 199 – and see them as an effort to impede economic benefits for those who aren't in the fishing business. We have excellent protections for salmon right now – we can quarrel about allocation of the resource among commercial, sport and subsistence and among gear types, but ever since the state took over fisheries management after statehood, the resource itself has been doing very well.
Development today is required to be done with a strong focus on environmental protection, maintaining cultural values and wildlife. Alaskans insist on these strong regulatory requirements. We have some of the strictest regulations in the world.
If someone has concrete evidence of problems with permitting and review process, put them on the table and let's work on it. Throwing up additional roadblocks because you just don't like a particular project can have wide-reaching ramifications across the state.
It isn't about a choice between one resource or another. We don't have to choose between salmon and mining or between salmon and oil and gas. Modern fisheries management resulted in our wild and hatchery-based fisheries being the best in the world. Modern environmental regulations make our resource extraction the best managed and safest in the world.
There was a time in Alaska when we were a younger, growing state and we helped our neighbors and strangers. We all worked together on trying to get things done – getting to a yes. Today it seems like we're just looking for reasons to say no. For a guy who likes to build things and appreciates all the benefits of a healthy economy, this hurts my head.
John MacKinnon is executive director of Associated General Contractors of Alaska.