Land deal another blow to proposed Pebble Mine

Conservation group to pay $20 million to keep privately held easements pristine
Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 7:19 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - On Tuesday, the Conservation Fund, a Virginia-based nonprofit conservation organization, and Pedro Bay Corporation, an Alaska Native village corporation that owns land in Bristol Bay, announced they’d entered into a $20 million agreement to place 44,000 acres of land into conservation easements.

“These lands were threatened by the development of the Pebble Mine, particularly by an industrial transportation route that would run through Pedro Bay lands,” said Larry Selzer, president and CEO of the Conservation Fund. “And so we have we have created a conservation easement that will protect the habitat, provide subsistence activities and future economic development to the shareholders of Pedro Bay.”

Portions of the three easements the Fund will purchase are within the proposed northern route transportation corridor associated with development of the Pebble Mine, a controversial project that seeks to construct an open-pit gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.

The agreement calls for the Fund to come up with the money by December 2022. It includes $18.3 million for purchase of the three conservation easements, $500,000 for education and cultural benefits by the Pedro Bay Benefits Corporation, and a $500,000 stewardship endowment for the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust. What is left will go to the Conservation Fund for the work they’ve put into the deal.

“The project aims to place a conservation easement on lands owned by the Pedro Bay Corporation, restricting development and ensuring the watersheds of the Pile River, Iliamna River and Knutson Creek are able support the extraordinary returns of sockeye salmon year after year,” the Fund said in a prepared statement on its website.

“It was so important to us because, really in the end, we really value our cultural heritage, and we just value our lands and our ancestral lands and you can’t really put a price on that,” Sarah Thiele, vice president of the Pedro Bay Corporation’s board of directors, said Tuesday.

Thiele grew up in Pedro Bay, a small community on the eastern shore of Lake Iliamna. She said 90% of shareholders voted to approve the deal, adding that she believes the overwhelming support shows the community’s desire to protect and preserve the land and the traditions of those who live or have family connections there.

“It’s very important to pass on tradition and knowledge,” Thiele said.

Pedro Bay Corporation will continue to own the land, which will be managed by the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust. Placing the lands into conservation will block the ability of the Pebble Limited Partnership from acquiring right-of-way access to construct a road across the corporation’s private lands for the proposed northern route transportation corridor, according to the Fund.

The land deal is another hurdle for the mine project. In November, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied it a needed permit under the Clean Water Act.

“Our focus remains on working with the US Army Corps of Engineers as its conducts its administrative appeal of the Pebble Project Record of Decision. This recent development hasn’t really changed that focus in any way,” Mike Heatwole, a spokesperson for Pebble Limited Partnership, said via email.

“It’s a big stretch to think that an industrial-strength mine and transportation corridor, as proposed by the Pebble Mine, would not have a deleterious effect on the salmon habitat and on the future uses of that area by the shareholders of Pedro Bay,” Selzer said. “We’re thrilled to be able to support the indigenous guardianship and sustainability that the shareholders of Pedro Bay have practiced for generations and will practice for generations to come.”

“I think it’s a win-win situation,” Thiele said. “We get to keep our land. We get to use our land like we always have. We will be protecting our land and preserving our heritage, which is what we always strive to do.”

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