By Kevin Diaz, Anchorage Daily News (4/1/07)
WASHINGTON — Longtime Alaska fisherman Tom Tilden, chief of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham, spent the last week looking for ways to connect Capitol Hill lawmakers to his native Bristol Bay, which he fears may soon be opened to oil and gas exploration.
He found the talking point he was looking for on the menu of a Union Station eatery: Alaska salmon salad.
“We’re connected,” he said.
Together with a half-dozen other commercial and subsistence fishermen, and a smattering of environmentalists, Tilden is trying to raise an early alarm about offshore oil and gas leasing proposals for Bristol Bay, home to an important salmon fishery.
The lobbying trip — Tilden calls it an “educational” mission — comes two months after the Bush administration removed a ban on oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay, north of the Aleutian Island chain.
The area has been protected since 1990, when Congress imposed a moratorium following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.
The U.S. Mineral Management Service has included the North Aleutian Basin, through which the Bristol Bay salmon migrate, in its proposed national plan for offshore oil and gas leasing from 2007 to 2012. A final decision is expected around May 1, according to Gary Strasburg, an agency spokesman.
The impetus has come from oil companies as well as local groups backed by former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, who encouraged the federal government to open Bristol Bay to exploration.
The local interests behind exploration include the Aleutians East Borough and the Bristol Bay Native Corp., which see the potential for jobs, cash and economic stability.
“It’s about economic diversity,” said Native corporation spokesman Jason Metrokin, noting that his group supports fishing as well as exploration — at least to find out how much oil and gas might be at stake.
“It’s about finding out what’s out there.”
In the meantime, a growing coalition of environmental and fishing groups are intent on making Bristol Bay the nation’s next big conservation battle.
“The fishery is tied to the concept of the wild Alaska salmon in its pure environment,” said Terry Hoefferle of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “Why would you bring an industry like oil into the middle of that? It’s like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
Hoefferle is former chief executive of the Bristol Bay Native Association, a social service and advocacy group for the region’s villages. He believes that once the word gets around outside Alaska, it’s going to make the fight over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development “pale in comparison.”
That’s just what drilling proponents like U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, fear. The push for a congressional moratorium — the quickest way to close off the region — is being backed by “extreme national environmental groups,” he said. He believes their aim is to gain attention and raise money for the larger cause of restricting oil and gas exploration and combating global warming.
“They use Alaska as the pinup for their theories,” he said.
Karen Gillis, executive director of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, one of the groups opposed to Bristol Bay oil exploration, disputed Stevens’ characterization of their agenda. “We are not in any way an anti-development association,” she said, noting that her group supports oil exploration in the North Slope’s Arctic refuge.
The reception from the rest of the Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation has been more cordial, though a little more supportive of Tilden and his anti-drilling group.
Rep. Don Young opposes the moratorium but argues for a public process free of interference from out-of-state interests.
“The fishermen have made a good argument for additional input from them into the process,” he said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has tried to stay out of the fray, deferring to local decision-makers.
“In most cases we’re not going to be an advocate for development in an area where it’s not certain there’s a consensus in what people want to do,” said her spokesman, Kevin Sweeney. “In Bristol Bay, it really appears that it’s sort of a 50-50 in terms of those who are pro and against.”
The administration of Gov. Sarah Palin, whose family fishes the bay, has taken a similarly measured response.
Palin “has not objected to the lease sale process provided that there’s strong local support, adequate environmental safeguards, and every effort is made to minimize conflicts between commercial fishing and a possible lease sale,” said John Katz, her Washington spokesman.
Katz noted that “there’s a long way between the cup and the lip,” as the first lease sales are not likely to happen until 2010 or 2011. Before then, he said, the leases would be subject to further environmental review.
The Bush administration’s decision to lift the long-standing ban on oil exploration in Bristol Bay has given new life to an old dispute. Leases granted in the 1980s were bought back by the federal government in the 1990s, after the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Until 2003, Congress imposed its own moratorium on Bristol Bay oil exploration. Anti-drilling activists would like to see that ban renewed, possibly with Congress withholding money from the lease-sale process.
Congress will have a formal 60-day review between May 1 and the July 1 “implementation date” for the government’s next five-year offshore leasing plan, Strasburg said.
But environmentalists and fishermen aren’t waiting until then to raise the specter of the Exxon Valdez and a federal study suggesting the likelihood of future oil spills if development occurs in Bristol Bay.
“We’re concerned enough about it that we want to start applying pressure now,” said David Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association, and a longtime Bristol Bay fisherman. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. This is arguably the most productive area in the world.”
Reporter Kevin Diaz can be reached in Washington, D.C.,
at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-202-383-0003.