For decades, the wilderness of Southwest Alaska has been the subject of a heated controversy over a proposed copper and gold mine headed by a Canadian company. The project, known as Pebble Mine, would be the largest open-pit mine in North America, generating an estimated $300 billion over a 20-year lifespan. The mine has long been met with fierce opposition for the irreversible harm it could pose to the pristine natural environment, and in particular, Alaska's lucrative salmon fishing industry. But it could also imperil the world's most celebrated populations of wild brown bears, which depend upon the region’s salmon-bearing rivers and draw tens of thousands of visitors to Alaska every year.
If built, Pebble Mine would use earthen dams to store hundreds of millions of tons of toxic mine tailings—including selenium, mercury, arsenic, and sulfuric acid—in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, the world's most productive wild salmon habitat. If the mine tailings were to leach into the water table, the rivers could be poisoned, destroying the homelands of over 25 Alaskan Native tribes and the jobs of 14,000 people who make a living from Bristol Bay's $1.5 billion salmon fishery. The construction of mining infrastructure would also result in permanent habitat loss for brown bears, a keystone species, and risk altering the unique human-bear relationships that make the Alaska Peninsula one of the world's best places to see bears in the wild.
For now, the fate of the region remains uncertain: while supporters of Pebble Mine wish to bolster the local economy, opponents of the mine feel that the consequences of an environmental disaster—to the salmon, the people of the region, and the bears—are simply too great to risk.