Last week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy responded to a letter from House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and Rep. Louise Stutes that had asked him to keep his distance from decisions related to the permitting of the controversial Pebble after secret recordings showed its executives bragging about essentially buying influence with the governor.
But if they were hoping for the Dunleavy to shift course after nearly two years of quietly boosting the mine behind the scenes—with potential investors and even with President Donald Trump—they were destined to be disappointed.
In a three-page letter, the governor laid out his most supportive public-facing statement on Pebble Mine, arguing that not only would he not be stepping away from the project but argued that it’s what’s best for the people of Bristol Bay even though a majority of Bristol Bay region residents oppose the mine out of concern that it would cause long-lasting impacts on the multi-billion-dollar Bristol Bay fishery.
“No serious person would disagree that accessing the mineral deposits within the Bristol Bay Mining District, if done in a way that protects the watershed, would transform the lives of Alaskans living in the region,” he wrote, later adding, “I will not stop fighting for the people of the Bristol Bay region who continue to suffer from an acute lack of economic opportunity.”
Dunleavy downplayed the importance of the fishery because it doesn’t operate year-round and “residents are left to cope with unemployment rates that often exceed 12% and poverty levels that are more than double the statewide average.”
In the letter, Dunleavy suggests that jobs at the mine would be the best cure for the “real human tragedies” faced by Alaska Natives in the region, listing off the region’s suicide rates, life expectancy and high school graduation rates.
“It is disheartening that a representative of this economically depressed region, with so many of their residents deprived of meaningful opportunities to improve their life, would foment opposition to plans to address these inequalities,” he wrote in reference to Edgmon, who represents the region, and asked what solutions Edgmon had to the problems.
Norm Van Vactor, longtime Bristol Bay fisherman and current CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, said he was frustrated by the letter and that his initial response wasn’t fit for publication. He said ultimately that it was a missed opportunity for the governor to find some common ground amid the upheaval following the publication of the Pebble Tapes.
“There was actually an opportunity in the governor’s response to potentially find some middle ground in all of this and address common concerns that folks have but instead he really, in my opinion, did a knee-jerk lashing out reaction,” he said. “To cite suicide rates and quite frankly demean the people of Bristol Bay in the way he did was very unthoughtful and unnecessary.”
Van Vactor said the claims about the seasonality of the Bristol Bay fishery not being adequate when compared to a job at the mine underlined the governor’s complete lack of knowledge about the Bristol Bay fishing industry. He noted that the governor has rarely traveled to Bristol Bay despite several invitations.
“His letter reflects his lack of knowledge about the region. … He referred to the seasonality of it and it’s like, for god’s sake it is what it is,” he said. “For 35 years, I was gainfully employed running a Bristol Bay salmon operation and there’s thousands of people like me who do just that. So, to minimize it the way he was quite frankly just insulting.”
Not the first
On the whole, the letter adopts the same aggressive and condescending tone the governor has used while interacting with Alaska Native leaders. During the middle of his proposed budget cuts in 2019, which would have largely focused cuts on rural Alaska regions, Dunleavy penned a similar letter to Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka.
While AFN called the governor’s budget plan “divisive by design” with little in the way of actual policy specifics, Dunleavy’s letter misstated AFN’s positions—falsely claiming the group wanted to eliminate the dividend—and similarly demanded to know what AFN’s plans were to deal with the problem.
Additionally, the attitude that mine development is the cure-all to the problems faced by Alaska Natives isn’t restricted to just Dunleavy but has been similarly echoed by Republican legislative candidate Leslie Becker who wrote on a ministerial blog that “New jobs will come to their communities and hearts will be lifted from alcoholism, drugs and despair.” The post has been called, rightly, racist and a deep misunderstanding of Alaska Natives and she was met with protests while campaigning in Metlakatla.