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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Design Intervention to Preserve Salmon Habitat at Pebble Mine

By McKenzie Wilhelm, 2013 National Olmsted Scholar

Since 2008, Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), a mining conglomerate with mineral rights to the Pebble Claim, has been preparing to submit permits for one of the most controversial mine proposals of the 21st century. The proposed mine is located between the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers in the Bristol Bay watershed. These two major tributaries are home to the most prolific salmon runs in the world. Indigenous Alaskans in this area rely on salmon for subsistence and have traditions thousands of years old that entwine the salmon’s survival with their own.

pebblemineMining in such close proximity to this unparalleled salmon habitat has the potential to cause social, economic and ecological damage as natural resources are unearthed and toxic by-products are created. It is, however, unrealistic to believe that these processes will be abandoned to preserve fragile ecosystems given the size and net profit projected for this deposit.

The copper and gold deposit at the heart of the conflict is valued at US$500 billion in profit, rendering strip mining in this sensitive ecology almost inevitable as PLP continues to pour money into preparation for the permitting process. (Pebble Limited Partnership, Project Environmental Baseline Document, 2004-2008. Accessed on web: Sept 4, 2013) Political tensions are continuously escalating between local tribes, PLP, the EPA and Alaska’s state government, adding complexity to the sociocultural context. While many continue to contest the mine’s construction, no research is being focused on how to minimize the threatening effects of mining processes on fragile salmon habitat.

Instead of fighting what seems to be an inevitable mining venture, a balance between conservation and devastation can be forged through design intervention. Olmsted Scholar David Shimmel and I are currently conducting site analysis and research about the mining process to understand its possible impacts on the Alaskan ecosystem. Our proposal shifts the focus of design from the human to the salmon. Salmon interact with a wide variety of habitats as they migrate from Bristol Bay to headwater spawning grounds within the PLP’s mining claim. By preserving the condition of salmon habitat, the surrounding community is also protected.

We are currently working through the site analysis phase of the project that will develop into one or more models for proposed design intervention as the year progresses. This summer, as the 2013 National Undergraduate Olmsted Scholar, I plan to visit the site with David to share our research with local communities. We will be in Alaska for about two weeks documenting this sensitive ecological area at the peak of salmon harvest and networking with local leaders and tribes to establish connections that can help refine and inform our continued research.

McKenzie is currently working on her undergraduate thesis entitled “Big Data at Pebble Mine: Toward a Critical Theorization of Empiricism in Site Analysis” and working on Pebble Mine research with MLA candidate David Shimmel at Ohio State University. She is also a part-time intern at NBBJ in Columbus, Ohio.

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