by Gabe Scott, Cascadia Wildlands House Counsel
Ready for some good news? Last week our partners at Eyak Preservation Council announced that the major part of Alaska’s Bering River Coalfield, and the old-growth forest on top of it, has been permanently protected!
Several things about this historic victory make it especially sweet. Ecologically it protects one of the most magnificent places on earth, a vast wild wetland on Cascadia's northern edge. Better, it does it in a precedent-setting way that puts the region’s indigenous people in charge. Personally I am proud that we Cascadians played a big part creating the conditions where this victory could happen. And, most of all, let us be inspired by the example of our close partner and good friend Dune Lankard, the Eyak native whose visionary leadership and sheer determination has achieved what few believed was possible.
The Bering River coalfield sits in the rugged, remote mountains just back of Cascadia's northern extreme (photo by Brett Cole).
The Bering River coalfield is located in one of the wildest and most productive on earth—the Copper/Bering River Delta wetland complex, along Alaska’s south-central Gulf coast. This is wild salmon, bear, wolf, eagle and raven country. Seals swim ice-berg choked rivers hunting King salmon. Ice-clad mountains rise almost straight out of the churning Gulf.
To the north is the largest protected wilderness in the whole world: from here into the Yukon territory all the way down to Glacier Bay. To the east is the largest ice-field outside the poles. The ice is moving, glaciers sliding forward and melting back, uncovering infant land. To the west is the Copper River Delta, and beyond that Cordova and Prince William Sound. This is the largest contiguous wetland in Cascadia, home to the world-famous Copper River salmon fishing fleet, and incredible concentrations of swans, geese and shorebirds.
The Bering River rages through the coast range, backed by glaciers, choked with salmon, and Wild as all-get-out (photo by Brett Cole).
There are huge veins of coal, the largest tide-water coal deposit in the world, buried in the mountain ridges back of the wetlands. Coal mining there would have involved mountain-top removal in the headwaters of rich salmon rivers, extensive clearcutting of the old-growth forest, roads across the wild Copper River delta, and a deepwater port near Cordova.
The deal announced yesterday is that Chugach Alaska Corporation's coal and timber will be forever conserved, stewarded with a conservation easement enforced by The Native Conservancy. The owner, CAC, will generate revenue by selling carbon credits on California’s market.
Historic Victory for Conservation
This has been a long time coming. The Bering River coalfield is one of modern conservation’s seminal battles. In 1907 Teddy Roosevelt stuck his neck out to prevent J.P. Morgan from grabbing it in a monopoly. Gifford Pinchot was fired/ resigned in protest trying to protect it. Louis Brandeis, before being appointed to the supreme court, put his talents to work for the cause. Through the era of statehood, and Native land claims, and the park-creating frenzy of ANILCA, and the post-Exxon Valdez restoration deals, conservationists always tried but developers stubbornly insisted that the Bering River coalfield needed to be mined.
The coal is owned by Chugach Alaska Corporation, one of the regional Alaska Native corporations. (Rather than treaties and reservations, in Alaska the U.S. congress formed corporations and made indigenous people into the shareholders. Long story. CAC is one of these.) CAC selected the coalfield and the trees atop it with an eye to developing them.
After going bankrupt in the late 1980s, CAC lost part of the coalfield to a Korean conglomerate. Notably, that portion of the coalfield isn't covered by the deal announced last week, so it will need to be protected too.
The conservation deal announced yesterday is precent setting for it’s unique mix of conservation and indigenous control. The Native Conservancy is a new idea, the brainchild of Dune Lankard, that was critical to the deal working. Formulated as a sort of friendly amendment to the Nature Conservancy, the idea is to incorporate social justice for indigenous people into long-term land conservation.
The 700,000-acre Copper River Delta is the largest contiguous wetland on the Pacific Coast of North America.
In the announced deal the Native Conservancy will hold the conservation easement, making it the steward in charge of protecting the land. Enforcement of easements is one of the major hurdles to private equity models of conservation, and this offers an attractive new possibility.
This victory also points to the inevitable reality of climate change and the future of carbon. California’s carbon market makes it possible economically for a company like CAC to realize a return on investment for conservation. Where there is money, deals will be made.
Lying politicians aside, global warming is real. The writing is on the wall for the carbon-heavy industries. When corporations look to the future, they see young people marching for climate justice, bringing their case to the courts and demanding sustainability. Especially for Alaska Native corporations like CAC, shareholders are keenly interested in avoiding climate catastrophe. The message is being heard!
A personal victory
This victory also marks a sweet sort of bookend to my own work running Cascadia’s Alaska field office, from 1998 until this past year. The first reason I went to Cordova, back in 1998, was to help Dune Lankard blockade the road that CAC was then actually building, across the Copper River Delta to access this coalfield and these trees.
When I first arrived there was the coalfield, an oilfield, a deepwater port, a road across the Delta and another one up the river, cruise ships and a Princess lodge, all interlocking. None of these threats alone could gain traction, but any two or more of them would forever destroy the wilderness. Dune and I spent countless hours together on the basketball court scheming the demise of this web of threats. For the next nineteen years, Cascadia and Eyak worked together on the campaigns. Together we stopped the road across the Delta, the deepwater port at Shepard Point, and oil drilling at Katalla.
Dune Lankard at Shepard Point, back in the day.
Without the deepwater port, without the access road, and without any oil discovery to attract new investment, conservation of the coalfield became more appealing.
While we are proud to have helped create the conditions for success, all credit for this victory goes to two heroes of the planet: Dune Lankard and Carol Hoover. Their dogged determination and visionary blend of indigenous and ecological justice has achieved what a century of environmentalists could not.
So, I am inspired, and so should you be!
The new president can take a long walk off a short pier. The train has left the station. The people are winning for climate justice, and we aren’t about to stop now.
After an incredible run in Cascadia's northern frontier based in Cordova, Gabe Scott recently moved back to Eugene with his family and is Cascadia Wildlands' House Counsel.