by Tiffany Zulkosky
Shortly after returning home to the YK Delta after college, I found myself turning to a career in public service much earlier than I planned. Whether in my role as a Bethel City Council Member, a young Bethel Mayor, or now in the Alaska Legislature, my priority has always been serving the region and the people that I love and am elected to represent.
I am proud to have benefitted from the public school system in the YK Delta and the family and cultural values of the Yup’ik people. Working together toward building a region that has healthy and resilient children and families, a vibrant economy, and strong and sustainable subsistence resources is a high priority for me.
In politics I am often asked to take positions on issues that may not be before the legislature for consideration nor influenced by whether I push the red button to vote “nay” or the green button to vote “yay.” Yet, I often call on my colleagues to be politically courageous and stand up for what matters the most to our state — equity, budget and fiscal solutions, and Alaska’s future.
While I am not an expert on all issues, I will always strive to be a public servant who is politically courageous on the issues that matter most to my district. Making my position against the proposed Donlin Gold project clearly known is one of those issues.
Over the past few years, I have tried my best to learn about the proposed mine, as well as the impacts it would have on our region’s economy, environment, communities and way of life.
Big proposals bring with them big changes. The waves created by these changes, both intended and unintended, have the potential to ripple through our lives for generations. Because of this, I wanted to have a clear understanding of the facts and certainty in my opinion before speaking out publicly.
Although there are some who are hopeful the mine will serve as an economic engine and an avenue of investment in jobs, infrastructure, and economies, recent reporting raises a lot of questions about the overall economic viability of the project.
Furthermore, could I, as a Yup’ik woman whose family has subsisted in the region since time immemorial and continues to rely on this land’s renewable resources, take a position to support something that takes even the slimmest chance of putting our land and ways of life in jeopardy?
Along with many Tribes along the Kuskokwim watershed, my answer is plainly no.
Alaska has made its wealth extracting natural resources from rural Alaska for the benefit of the greater good of the state, providing jobs, tax revenues to communities, and infrastructure development. But who really benefits from an open pit mine located on one of the largest subsistence fisheries in Alaska?
Projects like this must be done with the advice, consent, and for the benefit of the Indigenous people of our region—who stand to lose the most under a worst case scenario.
Regardless of the environmental or economic efficacy of a development project, I believe that peoples’ voices should matter in the process and should steer the outcome. I have heard
overwhelmingly from YK Delta residents, Tribes, and non-profit organizations about how the public comment and permitting process has been overly burdensome, ill-timed, and has likely suppressed necessary and meaningful consultation and engagement on the project.
For generations, traditional practices have provided our communities with wellness, a sense of identity and means to thrive. And while there may be opportunities for environment and proposed development projects to co-exist in a balanced manner, I have significant concern about the irreversible toll this project would take on our subsistence resources in order to be profitable.
It takes just one accident, that may not even be visible, to devastate our river, salmon, and game — a cornerstone in our region’s communities. For these reasons and many more, I oppose the proposed Donlin Gold mine. I proudly stand with Tribes, community leaders, businesses, non-profit organizations, and families in the YK Delta to protect the health of our homelands. Our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren deserve the right to maintain cultural nourishment through the resources stewarded by our ancestors.
Representative Tiffany Zulkosky is a resident of Bethel. She serves House District 38 in the Alaska State Legislature.