An Alaska Native’s Mining Perspective

by Fred Smith

I’m an Alaska Native from Noorvik in Northwest Alaska, though, I’ve lived many years in the Y-K region. I have three children, now adults, who are eligible for Calista scholarships and employment opportunities. As the Donlin Creek project gains more attention, I’ll share my personal and professional experience in the NANA region that’s experienced large mine development and production.
I’ve interacted in the Red Dog Mine operations as an employee of then Cominco, contractor on behalf of a NANA subsidiary, and a Board of Director of NANA Regional Corporation, the landowner of the Red Dog property. I’ve also interacted in the Y-K region as Donlin Creek, who through its exploration programs catalogued the resource and established feasibility for a Donlin Creek development plan. That development plan and subsequent EIS has resulted in those permits obtained to date.
Over the many years, I was fortunate to have lived, traveled, worked, and gain family and friendships in the Y-K region, I saw firsthand the people and communities of your region. In addition to raising family and working, I hunted and fished there as I’ve always done here at home. I admired the value and strength of Yup’ik people, culture and language.
As I’ve watched the dialogue in the Y-K, through the Delta Discovery and KYUK Radio websites, I see both sides of the argument for and against Donlin Creek development. Yet the question, I pose to myself, “If there is no Donlin Creek economic development, what is the employment and economic equal in impact for local residents to experience personal economic opportunity?”
We all know and experience the daily economic cost of providing for shelter, food, heat, a quality of life for our family, performing subsistence activities, supporting our youth’s academic and sporting pursuits, supporting our children as they attend vocational or college endeavors. Do we set aside all risks when we need income to pay for our family’s well-being? No. We balance the risk with the return. It’s not all or nothing as some might want you to believe in this, sometimes, contentious debate.
I want to encourage you all to recognize three perspectives as you analyze your position, for or against, Donlin Creek development. One, your perspective from your personal economic, environmental and subsistence standpoint. Two, the perspective of other local residents and companies who may have their economic well-being secured, and do not need new development. Three, the avenue opened to outside interest groups who can use your debate to their advantage and their agenda.
Up here, the Red Dog Mine is nearing 30 years of primarily zinc and lead production. Not very high on the commodities ladder. I and many local residents have benefitted from the foresight our past leaders had in selecting mineral rich lands for local, statewide and global economic benefit.
Local residents have realized economic prosperity through their personal commitment to employment at the mine. Children and communities have benefitted from new schools under the Boroughs ability to bond for construction. The Northwest Arctic Borough has kept millions of dollars in the region through exercising a Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreements over the years, providing local government functions, public services, and relevant employment opportunity. Red Dog development has provided training, employment and economic opportunities for NANA Shareholders.
Prior to Red Dog development there was, and still is, commercial fisheries, trapping, and firefighting on an annual basis, but most households lived in poverty. As primarily Alaska Natives, we’ve relied on the environment and subsistence resources as we’ve done for countless generations. Local residents have and will always have concern for the environment. As shareholders and residents, we will continue to have the ability through future permitting, operator performance, and the Red Dog Agreement to exercise control over continued production or expansion of mineral production.
As you evaluate your opinion on Donlin Creek remember the three questions I asked. Consider the issue from all sides and decide how you want the future to look. The opportunity before you is a great one, and could positively impact the Y-K region for decades. Importantly, consider your children’s futures and place in the Y-K region. As a young person, I’ve heard a common theme from parents and grandparents who experienced challenging lives, the they all desired better living conditions and environment than they experienced.
Fred Smith