Citizen of the Salmon World
Life in Lindsay Layland’s hometown of Dillingham, Alaska, revolves around salmon.
The community is the hub of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, the largest salmon run on Earth, and it’s safe to say that everyone in this part of Alaska has a connection to the salmon world. They fish for salmon and eat it. They run a commercial fishing operation, work for one, or are closely connected to someone who does. Or they’re tied to one of the scores of other businesses or entities—from B&Bs to schools to fuel companies—that rely on the return of salmon each spring. And even months after the rivers have emptied of spawners, salmon still seem to swim through town, as wooden cutouts painted by children and tacked up at public parks, on fence tops, and on the outside wall of the public library. In December, the annual elementary school holiday play features a salmon.
But for years now, Layland ’13 and others in her community have seen a direct threat to their salmon-centric way of life. For more than a decade, the Canadian company Northern Dynasty has been working to put a massive, open-pit copper and gold mine in the far reaches of Bristol Bay tributaries. The proposed Pebble Mine would be one of the largest in the world, developing a vast mineral deposit and, the company says, fostering industrial and economic activity in a region that has one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in Alaska. But in this salmon world—a place dependent on this pristine watershed—the mine has hit stiff opposition. And the scale of the project and the potential environmental and economic impacts to the salmon fishery have spurred global controversy, which has been covered by The Seattle Times, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera, among others.
“No project of this size, this scale, or this magnitude has ever come to Bristol Bay,” Layland explains.
Dillingham is a remote community of about 2,000 people roughly 350 miles southwest of Anchorage. No roads lead to the town from the rest of the state—access is only by boat or plane—and the region remains largely undeveloped. “That’s why our way of life is so unique,” Layland says.
Layland is a commercial salmon fisherman. (Like many women in the industry, she uses the term “fisherman” with pride.) She has fished every summer of her life since she was a kid: Her parents bought a commercial salmon fishing permit in 1991, the year Lindsay was born, and Lindsay and her brother—two years her senior—grew up helping with the family fishing business. She remembers being out on the boat with the family, often in the middle of the night because of the tide, and telling her dad, “I’m not even tired!” before curling up in her rain gear at the stern of the boat and crashing out. When her parents handed over $20 for her salary at the end of the season, “I felt like I was being totally overpaid,” she says. And even though the family moved to Homer, a larger Alaska community on the highway system south of Anchorage, when Layland was in middle school, they returned each summer to Dillingham to fish.
Layland originally heard about the proposed mine when she was a teen, and remembers asking her father, “What’s Pebble?” At the time, she didn’t know the details of the project but quickly grasped its possible significance. “This would impact my career, my job, my course of life,” she remembers realizing at the time.
She was right. Since then, Layland has not only taken over the family fishing business—and grown it—she’s become a leading activist working with tribes and other people in the region’s fishing industry to fight the project. Layland is deputy director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, or UTBB, a tribal government consortium—formed largely in response to the proposed mine—that provides a unifed voice for the region’s Native peoples. The organization’s goal is to protect the traditional Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq ways of life in Southwest Alaska; the cultural groups are represented by 15 federally recognized tribes that make up 80% of the Bristol Bay region’s population.
Carrying out centuries-old subsistence traditions—picking berries, drying salmon, putting up moose meat—Native peoples around Bristol Bay rely on diverse natural resources. All of these resources, Layland says, “would be disrupted by a giant hole in the ground.”
UTBB’s executive director, Alannah Hurley, is Yup’ik and a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. She sees the proposed mine as a cultural threat. “This is a cultural rights issue, an indigenous rights issue, and a human rights issue at its core,” she says. “Any desecration of our watershed means the extinction of our people.” Hurley testified before Congress in October about the need for decision-makers to listen to Native peoples in the region. “We are not a box to be checked,” she told members of the House of Representatives.
Located in a wilderness of tundra, wetlands, and braided streams, Pebble would be a vast industrial development requiring a pit one mile wide and a quarter mile deep, and a 600-foot-tall earthen dam for storing mine wastes, as well as about 100 miles of roads, gas pipelines, and a large port facility—complete with jetty, power generators, fuel storage facilities, and employee housing—on what’s now a wild beach.
The proposed mine was nearly dead after the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration found that the development of such a project was incompatible with fish, wildlife, and tribal life in the Bristol Bay region. But last June, citing the availability of new information, the EPA announced that it would consider the proposal again. Pebble is now in the permitting phase, and a final decision on whether the mine can be developed is expected before the end of President Trump’s first term.
At UTBB, Layland serves as the communication link between the Bristol Bay region’s more than two dozen remote communities and state and federal decision-makers. She visits villages regularly to update tribal members on the Pebble project and listen to their concerns. She relays these concerns to elected officials in Juneau and Washington, D.C., where she also educates legislators about the threats the development would pose to cultural values and ways of life, and advocates for tribal consultation during the permitting process. Layland also keeps the region’s residents updated on recent legal action—in which UTBB is a plaintiff—against the EPA, arguing that the agency broke the law when it reversed course with the project.