Alaskans Weigh the Cost of Gold

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

NONDALTON, Alaska -- The gold mine proposed for this stunning open country might be the largest in North America. It would involve building the biggest dam in the world at the headwaters of the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, which it would risk obliterating.

Epic even by Alaskan standards, the planned Pebble Mine has divided a state normally enthusiastic about extracting whatever value can be found in its wide-open spaces. It is an ambivalence that has upended traditional politics, divided families and come to rest at kitchen tables like the one 75-year-old Olga Balluta sat beside one autumn afternoon, listing her favorite foods.

"Brown bear fat and black bear fat. Fish gut salad -- crackly when you eat it," said Balluta, a member of the local native population that would be most directly affected by the mine.

From his chair by the sink, neighbor Rick Delkittie said, "I know my grandfather used to tell me, 'Don't ever get used to the white man's food.' "

That lesson, with its implied warning against dependence on anyone outside the land and waters that have nourished local residents for nearly 10,000 years, guides the subtle, shifting and uniquely Alaskan calculation that will decide whether Pebble goes forward.

Environmentalists and commercial fishing interests have mounted a well-funded public relations campaign against the project. Mining companies are investing hundreds of millions to make it inevitable. The two sides agree only that Pebble's fate is likely to pivot on the sentiments of a few thousand local residents who would have to live beside it.

But how do they live?

By tradition and law, natives have the run of the area for the moose, caribou and most of all the salmon that provide sustenance in a place hundreds of miles from the nearest road. But the outside world moves closer with each generation, and appetites change.

The only food on the table where Balluta sat were oily paper pouches of french fries hand carried on an airplane from a McDonald's in Anchorage. Lined up on the counter behind were jumbo containers of Hills Bros. coffee, CoffeeMate and Lucky Charms.

"That's all they learn to eat now," she said, gesturing to a granddaughter in the living room. "It's really changing."

The mining companies count on that change, dangling the prospect of cash incomes even while bowing deeply to traditions that no native consciously rejects.

"If we can't show to the satisfaction of the local people that we can protect the fisheries, we will not advance this project," said mining company spokesman Sean Magee. "We have no interest in replacing one resource with another, and we understand the burden of proof is ours."

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