Every Least Thing

He looked upon His work and called it good.

[by Russ Lumpkin]

It has been said that God is the original conservationist. Few people preach that message more fervently than farmer, author, and agitator Wendell Berry. Two decades ago, I read Berry’s What are People For?, which comprises more than 20 essays— among them, “God and Country,” where Berry asserts, “God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it.”

Faulkner mined a similar vein in “Delta Autumn,” part of Go Down, Moses. “I reckon He created the kind of world He would have wanted to live in if He had been a man—the ground to walk on, the big woods, the trees and the water, and the game to live in it.”

In The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy writes at length about God. Of creation, McCarthy says, “There is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. . . . Every least thing. . . . Nothing can be dispensed with.”

“So much has been lost already.”

It’s sad to see how blithely we often treat the wonderment of creation. Much of it is poor stewardship, what Berry called “the most horrid blasphemy.”

I realize that much of what is needed for modern life must be mined, dug, or somehow compelled from the bowels of the earth through means ugly, dangerous, and toxic. But when we can draw a line, especially if it will obviate near certain widespread ecological disaster . . . well, by God, we should.

Of enduring wonder are the migrations of wildlife. Godwits fly nonstop from the Arctic to New Zealand. Millions of wildebeests cross Serengeti National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve, fording rivers infested with crocs. Knowing the peril, still they plunge in.

Sadly, this country’s most famous migration is long gone. These days, bison live in protected areas in small groups—much like the original inhabitants of the continent, who depended on them. But imagine North America in the 1700s, when 60 million bison thundered along migration routes that spanned the continental latitudes.

So much has been lost already.

Northern Dynasty is a Canadian company campaigning to dig Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. The company’s most recent proposal calls for a pit mine that would be approximately 6,800 feet long, 5,600 wide, and 1,970 feet deep. The tailings embankments—engineered to hold back a lake storing toxic materials in perpetuity—will measure up to 600 feet tall. It would all be constructed in one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world. In fact, a 5.2 quake struck nearby King Salmon in 2016.

The area around Iliamna Lake is a crowded network of streams, creeks, and pothole lakes that are part of a water table that’s near the surface of the earth—perilously near should Pebble Mine come to fruition. According to Sarah O’Neal, a fisheries PhD candidate who works for Trout Unlimited, “The groundwater table at much of the Pebble site is virtually continuous with the surface water.”

When asked if either the Kvichak or Nushagak Rivers are spring fed, O’Neal replied, “The answer is undoubtedly yes. All basins in this area receive extensive groundwater input.”

The pit will sit just north of Iliamna Lake, which drains directly into the Kvichak River. Generally, the Kvichak sustains runs of more than 4 million sockeye salmon. In 2018, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, more than 62 million sockeyes entered the rivers and creeks that empty into Bristol Bay—the largest run on record since 1893.

There are many reasons to worry about the arrival of Pebble Mine, and among them is recent history. The 2014 Mount Polley disaster in British Columbia spilled 33 million cubic yards of tailings into Polley Lake. The slurry then pushed down Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake, which supports a substantial run of sockeyes. The breach of the tailings pond at Mount Polley is considered the worst environmental disaster in Canadian history.

“let’s consider the totality of what’s at stake in southwestern Alaska: namely, the life-giving and sustaining elements that make habitation in the Bristol Bay region possible for beast and man.”

In Brazil, tailings-pond failures have made headlines with frightening regularity. In November 2015, a tailings-storage facility at the Mariana mining site ruptured. The resulting deluge of mud and toxic mine tailings destroyed the village of Bento Rodrigues, killing 19 people. In addition, more than 78 million cubic yards of iron waste flowed into the Doce River. Seventeen days after the dam failed, the toxic mudflows exited the river’s mouth and polluted beaches on Brazil’s Atlantic coast. In January 2019, another tailings pond failed, this time at the Brumadinho site. More than 200 people have been confirmed dead and another 102 are missing.

So before Pebble Mine gets a green light, let’s consider the totality of what’s at stake in southwestern Alaska: namely, the life-giving and sustaining elements that make habitation in the Bristol Bay region possible for beast and man.

First, consider the water. In many places, water from the surface is filtered by the earth before it reaches the water table. But in this region of Bristol Bay, the groundwater and surface water often mingle on or just below the ground. Toxins that permeate the soil due to mine operations stand a significant chance of entering the rivers and streams as runoff. Further, any leaching, either two months after the mine enters operation or a thousand years hence, could enter rivers via discharge, seepage, and springs. That surface waters, rivers, and streams could become polluted seems a foregone conclusion.

The wonder of the salmon migration is not just the great numbers or that it happens at all, but that they navigate the return to their natal waters by a sense of smell. The wildebeest migration is led by mature specimens that learned the routes as calves. With the salmon, there are no wise old fish out front. They sniff their way home—exactly once.

According to O’Neal, 2 to 20 drops of mine waste per billion (or 2 to 20 drops in an Olympic-size pool) can interfere with a salmon’s olfaction and thus its ability to navigate. A dam break on a 600-foot-deep lake of toxic soup would be catastrophic.

Second, contemplate the food chain. In this region, the entire chain falls apart if the salmon run is destroyed. When the salmon migrate, many species of wildlife—brown bears, black bears, vermin, rodents, and birds of all sorts—fatten up to survive the winter. Even streamside vegetation gets a significant portion of its nitrogen from decaying salmon. Without salmon, the species that have come to rely upon them will cease to exist in a region that has long been their stronghold.

Also, we can’t overlook the human aspect. Natives have made homes here for centuries in settlements found up and down the rivers. These small villages— filled with hardworking people who toil, fish, love, and raise families—aren’t connected by any road system. Those who live here can’t just pack up the Suburban and drive to the city. They depend on the salmon for survival, and so long as the watershed is protected and managed properly, the annual run of salmon and life itself can continue uninterrupted for ages.

An entire, established industry of commercial and sport fishing is also on the chopping block. All five species of Pacific salmon migrate and spawn in the rivers of Bristol Bay, generating $1.5 billion in revenue a year while providing about 20,000 jobs in Alaska and beyond. While the interests of commercial, sport, and subsistence groups are often at odds with one another, they all share a common cause in opposing Pebble Mine.

You and I may not agree on God and the origin of species. I stand with Berry, Faulkner, and McCarthy and believe God loves the earth. You may believe there’s nothing greater than nature and time. But I hope you and I can agree that the earth is wondrous— for hunters and anglers, naturalists and poets, Natives and settlers, adventurers and idle admirers, and wildlife and even every least thing.

The period of public comment on Pebble Mine ends May 30. Your input will be considered by those who will ultimately determine the fate of the Bristol Bay watershed. To let your opinion be known, visit savebristolbay.org and pebbleprojecteis.com.