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Area Residents, Recreationalists Oppose State Agency’s Decision to Lease Land for Mining

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Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
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An Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority decision to lease more than 10,000 acres north of Ester and near Fox to an Australia-based gold-mining company has alarmed people who live in the area and many others who go there to enjoy hiking, biking and other forms of recreation and subsistence.

Ester Community Association President Monique Musick says the list of reasons that the organization and others oppose the Mental Health Trust Authority’s decision to lease thousands of acres around Ester for mining begins with the nuisance and hazards that it would inflict on the people who live in the area.

“You’ve got 24-hour noise pollution,” Musick said in an interview Friday. “There’s blasting – this is hard-rock mining. There’s going to be equipment noises. That equipment is going to impact our traffic. There’s pollution from mining, including the increased levels of dust from that activity that has impact on residents who have respiratory illnesses. There are groundwater impacts – arsenic and other heavy metals.”

Musick says in addition to those impacts, the hundreds of people who live near lands likely to be developed – around Ester Dome, Ester Lump, Henderson Road and Murphy Dome – also will see the value of their property plummet.

“Y’know, mining in your back yard does not exactly improve your property values,” she said.

Musick says the mining also would have a much broader impact on many other people who come into the area to enjoy its underdeveloped forestland and maze of back trails.

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Credit Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
The Trust Land Office also identified lands around Clear Summit ...

“The entire recreational trail system that connects us to Murphy Dome and these other areas – the Equinox Marathon Trail, the Dunbar Trail, the Fireplug Trails and dozens of offshoots and connectors that makes Ester Dome one of our premier recreational sites.”

Musick says both the locals and area residents also value the land for such traditional uses as hunting, trapping and berry-picking.

But the head of Alaska’s mining-industry trade group says those concerns are premature. Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Skibinski says any development of those lands would first have to be reviewed during the state’s permitting process. And she says area residents should trust in the process, and participate in it.

“That permitting process requires a lot of really close looks at how all of the various aspects to the environment are impacted,” Skibinski said, “and that permitting process has a lot of different opportunities for public input.”

Musick says opponents of the proposal don’t find much comfort in the process. Because among other things language in Mental Health Trust Authority’s June 25 decision that concludes mining is the highest and best use of the land, suggests Felix Gold’s proposal is a done deal if the company finds gold. And she says that’s quite likely, given the history of gold mining in Ester.

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Credit Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
... the TLO also identified areas North of Fox.

“This lease allows them to go and immediately start that process for development, based off of what they find,” she said.

Skibinski says it’s not that simple, and that public comments will be allowed before development. She says that input also helps mining companies develop mitigation plans that enable their operations to be conducted in ways that won’t create excessive impact on adjacent property owners. As was done, she says, with Kinross Alaska’s gold mine near Fox.

“They went in, as part of the permitting process, did stakeholder engagement, came up with ways to mitigate concerns,” Skibinski said, “and now we have an incredibly successful gold mine, which is one of the primary economic drivers of the Interior.”

Musick says opponents don’t believe that Felix Gold would make the kinds of efforts that Kinross did. She says their skepticism is fueled by what they say is the Mental Health Trust Authority’s efforts to conduct its Best Interest Decision-making process behind the scenes, with minimal notice provided only through legal ads published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

“There was no public announcement,” Musick said. “There wasn’t a public hearing. Those of us in the community directly impacted have not had the opportunity to ask questions, to discuss alternatives or to express our concerns.”

Skibinki disagreed.

“I have to take exception with an allegation (regarding) too little notice, too short of notice, not enough information,” she said. “When mining development is proposed,  there’s very early-on stages of whether or not the land should even be leased – that doesn’t mean that a mine is going to be approved tomorrow and be built.”

Musick says she and other opponents aren’t persuaded by those assurances. And she says now that the Felix Gold mining proposal is out in the open, the public should weigh in before Friday, when the deadline for public comment on the Mental Health Trust Authority’s Best Interest decision are due.

Editor’s note: Anyone interested in providing written comments about the state Mental Health Trust Authority Trust Land Office’s best interest decision must submit those comments before 4:30 p.m. Friday. Comments may be emailed to mhtlo@alaska.gov; or faxed to  (907) 269-8905; or sent by mail to:

Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority Trust Land Office
2600 Cordova St., Suite 201
Anchorage, AK 99503