Raising Stakes To Save Salmon

Photo: Ketchikan Indian Community

How Trixie Bennett is leading the fight to save the rivers that feed the Tongass National Forest—and preserve a traditional Alaskan way of life.

Trixie Bennett is president of the Ketchikan Indian Community (KIC), a federally recognized tribe of more than 6,000 people in southeast Alaska. Though now based in the tribe’s headquarters of Ketchikan, Bennet grew in Wrangell at the mouth of the Stikine, a regional river that’s been her people’s ancestral homelands for thousands of years. It’s part of what the Alaskans who live here call the Salmon Coast: three enormous river systems in the Tongass National Forest that make up one of the last intact ecosystems of this scale on the planet.

These rivers host some of the few remaining wild salmon runs, and scientists have called the old-growth forests shading them the “lungs of the country,” as America’s carbon-sink version of the Amazon. The region hosts the largest known concentration of bald eagles; is a stronghold for brown bears, which have dwindled in the lower 48; and anchors Alaska’s biggest tourism economy, from wildlife-watching, hunting, fishing and sightseeing, to cultural experiences offered by the Indigenous tribes. 

Beyond the health of Tongass (the largest national forest in the U.S.), across the border, Canadian mining companies refer to the region as the Golden Triangle, where a series of open-pit gold and copper mines mark the rugged landscape with colossal, notoriously leaky toxic-waste storage facilities. Canada is currently poised to develop nearly 6,000 more square miles of claims, including at the headwaters of the Stikine. Mineral extraction there would be the river’s death knell as arsenic, sulfuric acid, and other toxins leach into the water, slowly wiping out the fish, plants, animals that depend on them—and way of life for an entire people.

Bennett, who’s also a traditional healer and owns the medicine shop Tongass Tonics, is leading the Ketchikan Indian Community’s fight to save the Stikine, Unuk, and Taku rivers. KIC and other tribes, municipalities, organizations, and individuals are bringing resolutions to President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later this fall to demand Canada agree to pause its rush to develop mining on immense portions of shared salmon river systems, and to ban dams used for problematic mine tailings. 

PUBLIC LANDS: What’s at stake up there for people and the land?

TRIXIE BENNETT: What they call the Golden Triangle, we call the Sacred Headwaters. We are so connected to these places. Even the animals, we are the animals, we’re bears, killer whales, frogs, we are the plants. And salmon are in trouble, king salmon especially—they’ve been listed as a species of concern.

B.C. has a legacy of lax permitting and monitoring outlined in three different Auditor General reports that found B.C. was unable to safely develop mining projects. That became a reality when we saw that ‘state of the art’ tailings dam fail at Mount Polley, which created the largest environmental disaster in B.C. history. We’re not against development, we know mining’s been going on a long time, but the urgency has changed in the number of permitted stakes coming to fruition. The Unuk River—the River of Dreams—is staked to the max with around 80% of it, from the headwaters down to our area, just waiting for the price of gold to go up. And these claims are being permitted with the same design of those that failed before: That’s the whole purpose of calling for a pause, and it’s not unreasonable to ask. 

It’s up to the B.C. ministry to make sure that everybody has that freedom to decide about the industry that’s going on in their communities, and get prior consent. We should be done with letting people in boardrooms all across the world decide what's happening here.

 

What made you want to step up to a leadership role?

I worked with the tribe in healthcare for over 20 years, and decided to go to work on our tribal council to push organizational development and positive change from that level to advocate for our way-of-life issues, like getting people better access to traditional foods. That’s what I grew up with: getting seafood and sharing amongst all our people. But it’s getting harder and harder to get our fish for a variety of reasons: climate change, melting glaciers, on top of mining concerns. Those main rivers, like the Stikine, are what really feed us. Standing up for clean water and salmon in this transboundary region is probably the most important work I’ll do in my lifetime. 

 

How do you stay motivated when cross-border mining is such an intimidating issue in size and levels of bureaucracy?

That’s a hard one. Remembering that we have an inherent right to hunt and fish, and we never gave that up. And seeing support come from other governments—tribal governments, but also the local municipalities are backing us up. And having Deb Haaland [the first Native American cabinet secretary] as head of the Department of Interior has been very motivating.

And our way of life, that effect that I see when we get people out on the land and the healing that it brings: That motivates me. We are connected to the land and to the sea, and to each other, all our relatives. We just need to keep that vision of salmon being here for many generations to come.

— Help defend and sustain these unique, sacred transboundary rivers at salmonbeyondborders.org   

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