Backers of a proposal to create a state wildlife refuge around Tangle Lakes say they’re not discouraged that they haven’t yet succeeded in their decade-long effort to get the Legislature to act on the proposal. The refuge advocates say they’ll continue the campaign to educate the public and build grassroots support to compel lawmakers to protect the area’s prime caribou habitat and hunting and fishing grounds from being harmed by large-scale mining operations.
For 10,000 years, humans have hunted caribou and harvested fish and berries around Tangle Lakes, a series of long, narrow bodies of water just south of the Alaska Range, and west of Paxson, that form the headwaters of the Delta River.
And for the past 10 years or so, Kenny Lake resident Cliff Eames and his wife, Ruth McHenry, have been trying to protect the scenic area and its important wildlife habitat from large-scale mining that could come if a Canadian minerals-exploration company confirms the presence of platinum there.
Eames admits that it’s been an uphill struggle.
“Well,” he said, chuckling, “I would have to say things are moving fairly slowly.”
Eames, McHenry and the organization they head up, the Copper Country Alliance, have gathered more than a thousand signatures from people all around the state on a petition they sent to the Legislature in 2011 asking lawmakers to create the Tangle Lakes State Wildlife Refuge, to protect the area’s natural resources, especially the Nelchina Caribou Herd’s habitat.
Despite the petition drive and numerous communications and meetings with legislators and other state officials over the past five years, no lawmaker has ever submitted a bill to create the refuge.
Eames says refuge advocates are realistic about the prospects of that happening this session with a Legislature that seems more inclined to promote resource development above conservation.
“Y’know, this is not the time to try to pursue a legislative designation,” he said. “The Legislature is just not amendable to that sort of thing.”
North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, who represented the area until last year’s redistricting, opposes the idea of a refuge. He says the area around Tangle Lakes was withdrawn by the state specifically for mining when the feds handed it back to Alaska in the 1980s.
“This land was state-selected land for mineral potential, as well as for this really nice multi-use hunting, fishing, berry-picking. And those things can coexist and have in many, many places in Alaska.”
Coghill says if the companies now exploring the area decide to develop a mine, state laws and regulations will adequately protect game and fish and other resources.
Newly elected Sen. Click Bishop of Fairbanks, who now represents the area, declined to comment on the issue. Rep. Eric Feige, whose House district includes the area, did not respond to requests for comment.
Eames says backers of the refuge don’t want to ban all mining. Smaller placer mines would be allowed in the refuge, as would hunting.
He says the big concern is over large-scale operations – especially an open-pit mine – around the caribou habitat and two other sensitive areas: the 227,000-acre Tangle Lakes Archeological District, which features more than 600 sites that reveal the 10,000-year history of human habitation in the area; and the upper Delta River, which has been designated as a federal Wild and Scenic River corridor.
“What we’re going to be focusing on is what we have been focusing on since the very beginning – that is, monitoring the efforts of the mining companies to develop a very large and disruptive mine in that extremely beautiful and popular area,” Eames said.
There’s no major mining going on around Tangle Lakes now. But Toronto-based Pure Nickel Incorporated, or PNI, with financial backing from its partner, Japan-based ITOCHU Corp., have launched a multimillion-dollar exploration effort in search of platinum.
PNI President and CEO David McPherson declined to speak on tape in an interview last month, but McPherson said his company was quote “pleased” with the results of last summer’s exploration – and that that exploration work will continue this summer.