Salmon initiative promises to protect a way of life

by Frederick Olsen Jr.

When I think of salmon, I think of summer days that have lasted my whole life. I pray they never end. Most often it starts on a dusky dawn in June. We shake off sleep and motor the six miles by open skiffs from our village of Kasaan to the Karta River, a place steeped in family lore and where my great-grandfather was born.
The sockeye are running and it’s time to catch them the way our uncles taught us — with dipnets while perched on rocks at the falls. The black bear downstream takes no notice of us. Soon, my back aches, my triceps shake, and my eyes swirl with the current. But not many other activities ever give me that big of a grin.
When we hit our limit, we hustle back to put up the fish by our aunties’ preferred method. Opening a jar in midwinter and tasting the fatty skins takes me back up the river of my ancestors all over again.
Salmon are verbs to me and my relatives around Kasaan, the actions of continuing our way of life. Once that life is gone, it cannot be replaced or mitigated for. Money does not bring back the dead. That is why the Tribal Council of the Organized Village of Kasaan supports the new ballot initiative that would establish clear laws to guide development around salmon streams — the “Stand for Salmon” initiative. Through it, Alaskans will gain more opportunities to provide input on development proposals. Overall, the initiative would ensure that salmon are not sacrificed as the state continues to grow.
We know what happens when industry is not responsible and develops at all costs. Around Kasaan, we have 35 former mine sites in various stages of cleanup. The worst is the notorious Salt Chuck Mine, a Superfund site on Kasaan Bay that continues to leach toxins including arsenic into our food web. Salt Chuck used to be a popular shellfishing site. No more. Folks from somewhere else sacrificed our precious area for the temporary gains of people from some far off locale. They profit for a few years and we lose forever.
Our salmon across Alaska face a legion of threats that stem from this sort of short-term thinking. The sockeye arrive later in the year and in fewer numbers, possibly because of climate change and shifting weather patterns. A century of clearcut logging has hurt watershed health. New mining projects and proposals in the headwaters of our most important salmon rivers threaten our way of life. As you read this, the Tulsequah Chief Mine continues leaching toxins into the Taku River watershed, which has been happening since 1957.
We need clear development rules that will protect salmon in their most sensitive spawning and rearing habitats. These development standards will also deliver clean water for wildlife and downstream marine life such as clams and oysters, not to mention clean drinking water for our kids and stream protections to prevent flooding and landslides.
Clear standards also guard against the backroom deals and “trust us” approach of politicians. For too long, the fate of our rural communities, our rivers, our salmon — our Way of Life — has been decided by these few people in faraway halls of power. We’re tired of living as if in a colony. The Stand for Salmon initiative gives us back a voice. It gives citizens a seat at the table in decision making about our rivers. It’s a step in the right direction for our communities and for Alaskan democracy. That’s something everyone should support.
Frederick Olsen Jr. is the tribal president for the Organized Village of Kasaan, a federally recognized tribe on Prince of Wales Island.