A tiny Alaska town is split over a goldmine. At stake is a way of life
For 2,000 years, Jones Hotch’s ancestors have fished Alaska’s Chilkat River for the five species of salmon that spawn in its cold, clean waters. They have gathered berries, hunted moose and raised their families, sheltered from the extremes of winter by the black, saw-toothed peaks of the Iron Mountain.
Now Hotch fears a proposed mining project could end that way of life.
Hotch has an infectious, boyish laugh – but there is no mistaking how worried he is about plans to build a mine where millions of pounds of zinc, copper, lead, silver and gold are buried, beneath the valleys’ mountains. We arejust miles from the headwaters of the Chilkat, the glacial river that serves as the main food source of the Tlingit, the region’s Indigenous people, as well as the inhabitants of Haines, the nearest port town.
“You guys might have your Safeway,” he says, waving his arm across the valley. “There’s ours all around here.”
Hotch, a tribal leader, lives in Klukwan, a village that takes its name from the Tlingit phrase “Tlakw Aan” – “the village that has always been”. It is the hub of an ancient trading route – later known as the Dalton Trail – that runs from Haines to Fort Selkirk in Canada.
Here in south-east Alaska, the consequences of the climate crisis are already visible. “Our mountains used to be snow-capped all year round,” Hotch said. “Two summers ago, our mountains were almost totally bare.” In Haines, hardware stores sold out of box fans because it was so hot.
King salmon – also known as Chinook – are in particular trouble. Haines’s popular annual fishing derby for largest species of Pacific salmon has been canceled, and now if anyone catches one, it must be released, in the hopes of encouraging their numbers.
“We need the snow to keep water cold for the salmon, for the summer blueberries,” says Hotch. Last year he saw fewer bumblebees, essential for pollination, and the blueberry crop was very disappointing. “I saw a bumblebee last week and I got real happy,” he laughs.
The mine, known as the Palmer Project, is still in the exploratory stage but financial control of the project was taken over by Dowa – a metals manufacturer and one of Japan’s largest companies – in a move that is seen as giving fresh impetus to the project.
If it gets approved, Hotch worries that contamination from the mine, located under the Saksaia glacier, could destroy the salmon runs they rely on. Even the exploration now under way could irreparably damage the fragile ecosystem, he believes, adding that the town would suffer too. Haines is heavily reliant on commercial salmon fishing, as well as tourism – each November, visitors flock to town to watch the largest convocation of bald eagles on the planet gorge on salmon.
“This project is a serious, significant threat facing our people,” says Hotch. “Some of the younger generation here now, they could say, ‘We were the last ones that were able to smoke fish, jar fish, pick blueberries,’” says Hotch. “We are working very hard to make sure no generation will have to say that.”
Mining has a long and storied history in the Chilkat Valley, stretching back all the way to the 1890s Klondike gold rush. Hopeful prospectors have been trying to strike it rich ever since Haines local Merrill Palmer – hence the name of the mine project – first laid claim to the site in 1969.
This year, plans to open operations finally took a significant step forward when Dowa took over the majority interest in the project from its Canadian partner, the exploration company Constantine.
“It is a decision by an investor, already highly invested, to put in additional money to further develop it and take control of the project,” Jim Kuipers, a Montana-based consultant, told the Chilkat Valley News. “Every year the project continues to get financed and ownership gets more consolidated it does become more likely to happen.”
Along the banks of the Chilkat, there are already signs of increased activity. The Haines highway is being extended to carry heavy trucks at higher speeds, and the state-run Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (Aidea) is proposing financing reconstruction of the town’s deepwater dock to include an ore dock that would make it easier to transport the bounty that the Constantine corporation believes the mine contains.
The economic turmoil triggered by the coronavirus has added impetus to the plans. The unemployment rate in Haines was over 14% in January. Meanwhile, copper prices have soared to record levels as large parts of the global economy emerge from pandemic lockdowns. The Palmer project would support 220 full-time jobs and 40 contractors, a significant boost to a town with a population of 1,863.
‘What we have here is special, not just for us but for the world’
For Gershon Cohen, a long-time Haines resident and project director of Alaska Clean Water Advocacy, rumblings that the mine may finally become a reality are “a nightmare”.
Cohen moved to Haines in 1984 and lives surrounded by trees in a beautiful wooden house he built himself – nothing out of the ordinary for Haines’s hardy, self-sufficient residents. On a walk to the shed he uses as his outside office, his wife suggests he gives me the “moose and the bear” talk. I joke I am a little old for that, but the dangers of the area’s two largest mammals are very real. Bears are likely to sniff you coming from a mile off and leave before you ever see them, but moose are easier to surprise and likely to trample you if spooked.
This is still a wild place. A record 40 grizzlies were killed in Haines last year, perhaps because poor fish runs and a bad berry season drove them into town looking for food (they have also been kept out of the local dump by an electric fence.) Bears, however, are smart – they have learned to open car doors to look for food and are not averse to breaking and entering houses.
“What we have here is very special, not just for us but for America and the world,” said Cohen. “There is a very real possibility that this mine will destroy the fisheries here. With the fish gone, there will be no eagles, no bears, no tourists. If this mine gets started it’ll be here for what? Ten years? What’s that against thousands of years of supporting this community?”
Haines and Klukwan are part of the Inside Passage, the longest and deepest fjord in North America and a place with a unique ecology. Cold, glacial freshwater meets the sea here, making it the perfect spawning ground for salmon and a critical corridor for bears, moose, lynx, coyote and snowshoe hares.
“Part of what makes this place so full of life is the robust salmon runs,” says Shannon Donahue, executive director of the Great Bear Foundation. The salmon transport nutrients from the ocean to the streams, they feed the bears and the eagles and their bodies feed the forest. But salmon are “pretty picky about their habitat,” she says.
Copper in particular can be catastrophic for them. Salmon can travel thousands of miles to return to the stream where they were born to die, using a smell memory bank to navigate one of the greatest migrations in the animal kingdom.
Metals leaked into streams can destroy the fish’s ability to find their way home, and“fugitive dust” shaken from trucks transporting extracted minerals can also contaminate the waterways, eventually building up to levels that can destroy the salmon’s unique homing abilities.
The mine’s supporters believe they can safely extract the Palmer Project’s riches. But even if they do, the mine’s “tailings” – the waste materials including millions of tonnes of contaminated water – will have to be managed forever.
For local opponents, one recent disaster comes to mind immediately. In 2014 the tailings at the Mount Polley goldmine in British Columbia failed, sending 24m cubic metres of mine waste into the local waterways.
The Palmer site sits on active earthquake faults and in an area prone to catastrophic landslides. Only last December, two people died and multiple houses were destroyed after record-breaking rainfall triggered a landslide in Haines, leaving a huge, brown scar on the hillside.
As he recounts the tragedy, Cohen shakes his head. “What could possibly go wrong?”
‘It’s nerve-racking to even pick a side’
Alaska is heavily Republican and deeply pro-mining, but Haines is split on the project – and this includes the Native community, says local artist James Hart, a tribal council member of the Chilkoot Indian Association.
Hart is against the mine, but is wary of speaking out. “I am not a scientist, but I have seen what has happened in other places,” he says. “Worst-case scenario [is] it could potentially devastate and wipe out all of our salmon runs.”
Sharing that view in a small town where everyone knows everyone has consequences. “It’s nerve-racking to even pick a side or voice an opinion as a minority person,” he says. “The political climate in Haines makes it really hard.”
Hart’s mother has long been involved with tribal politics and and is another opponent of the mine. Recently people yelled at her in the street “just for having an opinion”, he says. “It’s not even an opportunity for having a dialogue, it’s just yelling because you have an opinion.” The incident made him more nervous for himself and his family.
Support for the project also runs deep. Jan Hill, Haines’s former mayor, is also Tlingit and a First Nations member of the Southern Tutchone. Her family has deep ties to the community and the project; Palmer was a friend of her parents.
“Mining is kind of in my blood,” she said. Her great grandparents came up to Alaska in 1898 from Washington state for the Gold Rush. “We have dealt with resource extraction in this community and it’s worked well for us. For the most part it is done responsibly and that’s what is important to all of us,” she said.
She points to Constantine hiring local people who can buy homes offering “good-paying summer jobs” for students and purchasing all the goods it can in Haines. And experts at Constantine offered help after the recent fatal landslide that would not have been available otherwise.“They stepped up immediately,” said Hill. “They are a part of our community.
“None of us want bad things to happen to our fish or any of the wildlife. We live a subsistence lifestyle here. We depend on our fish and moose, the bears and ducks – all the creatures that God gave us. We all have these concerns, but I believe Constantine is very responsible. They are very regulated, they are good stewards of the environment.”
Garfield MacVeigh, Constantine’s chief executive, says he listens closely to the community’s apprehension. “We hear and appreciate those concerns. All the work we are doing is to demonstrate that we won’t be a threat to the environment. If we can’t demonstrate that, you are not going to build the project,” he said.
He points to a similar-sized mine, Greens Creek silver mine near Juneau, about 80 miles as the eagle flies from Haines, which went into production in 1989 and has been operating for 32 years without any obvious impact on salmon.
Asked about Hotch’s concerns, he said: “I hear them, and as far as I am concerned they [the Tlingit] will be there for another 2,000 years, because we won’t take a risk that would result in any threat to the river environment.”
Many of the concerns about the impact of the mine were unscientific, he said, and comparisons to the Mount Polley catastrophe were “very misleading”.
“These days you are seeing virtually every project, anywhere, being contested. You have got the extreme group on one end contesting all of these things. They seem to become political rather than scientific. That’s their intent, to create noise around this and make it more and more political. The more extreme element doesn’t seem to be interested in the scientific data that may or may not justify the project,” he said.
Cohen dismissed MacVeigh’s comments, saying that there had been plenty of evidence, including from state reports , of high levels of pollution near Greens Creek.
Holding strong opinions can be hard in a small community. Other Haines residents were happy to talk as long as they were promised anonymity. One said it was particularly hard for the younger generation to speak out. The pandemic recession hit the town hard and, given its isolation, life was already too expensive for many here. “My friends are moving away,” he said. “I’m lucky – I’m working. But I can’t afford to piss anybody off. Older people have less to lose.”
He suggested I go and check out how much a gallon of milk cost in the local supermarket. A gallon of 2% milk was $6.89 in Haines, while the national average in April was $3.58. Nearby, the supermarket was selling organic cucumbers for $2.29 a piece, compared with $1.49 in a Whole Foods in Brooklyn.
It’s not just the mine that divides Haines. The town has a long reputation for sharp-elbowed politics and bitter generational infighting.
Few people know that better than Kyle Clayton, publisher of the Chilkat Valley News. Trying to objectively cover the Palmer project is a hard task. “I piss everybody off,” says Clayton. “I’ve been called a lackey for the mine.”
A handsome 36-year-old, Clayton has the worried look of a peacemaker. “It comes from all directions. The good thing is that in a small town, you can talk to people and reach some kind of understanding.”
He dislikes the black or white nature of the debate. “There’s a lot of unknowns. It’s still a long way off from being a project,” he says. He wants to see more information before deciding whether he should take a side.
On his paper-strewn stand-up desk is a list of 22 questions to be asked of interviewees to “complicate the narrative”, to “amplify contradictions and widen the lens”. In this hyper-partisan age, he is determined the paper will try its hardest to be fair to both sides.
People warned Clayton of Haines’s reputation before he moved from Petersburg, another small Alaskan town south of Juneau. These days, he thinks it’s not so different from much of America. When he speaks to people back home, they tell him people there are at each other over face masks and Covid vaccinations.
“Maybe we just did it first?” he says. “Haines is definitely a divisive little town. But what doesn’t get said is a lot of people are very engaged,” he says.
As plans for the Palmer Project pick up, the community and the wider world is likely to get even more engaged – and enraged. The Biden administration recently banned drilling for oil and gas in Alaska’s Arctic national wildlife refuge. Alaska’s Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, called it an “assault on Alaska’s economy”.
But the opposition to the mine may not come entirely from the left. Last year Donald Trump Jr, the former president’s son and a keen hunter and fisherman, joined opposition to the controversial Pebble mine at the headwaters of salmon-rich Bristol Bay. That project is now in jeopardy.
Hotch said his community would be fighting hard to make sure Merrill Palmer’s gold stays underground. No short-term gain is worth the risk involved, he said.
“There might be money for five, 10, 15 years and then they will leave for the next spot, wherever that is. And we here will have to live with the consequences of what they did to our lands.”
More than anything, he wants the way of life that has supported his people for 2,000 years to be protected.
“I long for the day we can stop having to do this and look at ways that the salmon can have a friendlier way swimming up river. That’s how we can help them. That’s my goal after we finish this battle. They have been helping us for generations. It’s the absolute least we can do.”
This article was amended on 22 June to correct the spelling of Petersburg.