Another hardrock mine has reared its head in Cook Inlet, and it’s raising big questions from local property owners, fishermen and businesses.
In late August, Inletkeeper flew to the west side of Cook Inlet to meet with local residents and representatives of High Gold – the junior Canadian mining interest currently exploring the Johnson Tract. The Johnson Tract is a private in-holding owned by the regional Native corporation Cook Inlet Regional, Inc (CIRI), and it lies within the boundaries of Lake Clark National Park, just south of Tuxedni Bay.
The visit highlighted once again the inherent tensions that arise between sustainable fishing and tourism businesses, and short term extractive development that poses a direct threat to these efforts. The proposed mine area remains largely undeveloped, and boasts everything that’s come to define wild Alaska. From large, roaming populations of brown and black bears, wolverines, wolves and marmot, to giant flocks of shorebirds and seabirds, to free-flowing streams teaming with silver, sockeye, pink, chum and king salmon, the region represents some of the last intact, diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet.
Not surprisingly, these resources support a variety of small businesses and families dedicated to fishing, tourism and the Alaskan way of life. Set and drift net fishing operations occur throughout the region, small, remote lodges host visitors to witness the region’s amazing bounty, and an old clam and salmon cannery – the Snug Harbor Cannery – has been restored to support the budding tourism industry.
Background & History
Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971, but because much of the land around southcentral Alaska had already been claimed or settled, CIRI felt its land selections were largely relegated to “mountain tops and glaciers.” In response – after litigation and some highly complex negotiations – CIRI, the State of Alaska and the Federal Government agreed to the 1976 Cook Inlet Land Exchange, which has been called the largest land exchange agreement in American history.
Among the many aspects of the land exchange, CIRI acquired title to approximately 21,120 acres in two blocks of roughly equal size in the Johnson Tract: it acquired title in fee simple (i.e., surface and subsurface ownership) in the southern block, and subsurface rights to the minerals in the northern block. With the passage of the Alaska National Interest Land Claims Act (ANILCA) in 1980, the revised boundaries of Lake Clark National Park surrounded the Johnson Tract, making it a private inholding.
As part of the 1976 land exchange, CIRI not only obtained the right to mine the minerals from the Johnson Tract, but it also received the right to negotiate right-of-way access across National Park lands to get those minerals to market. That means CIRI and the Department of Interior (which includes the National Park Service) must agree on an easement over park lands to get the product to tidewater, and another easement for the construction of an export terminal along the shores of Cook Inlet.
While the location of the transportation corridor and export terminal – should the mine prove financially viable – has yet to be determined, a 1994 environmental analysis conducted by CIRI and a Canadian mining company for the Department of Interior sheds light on the possible alternatives. One path leads all the way down the Johnson River valley, with an export facility on the north side of the mouth of the Johnson River. Three other alternatives follow the Johnson River about 8 miles from the south block mine site to the headwaters of Bear Creek, where the route turns north for three additional export alternatives in Tuxedni Bay and Channel (see below).
Mining exploration at the Johnson Tract started in the early 1980’s. In 1981, CIRI leased the Johnson Tract to Anaconda Minerals Company, which explored the area until 1985. Other companies conducted exploration activities off and on for the following decade.
In June 2018, CIRI inked a letter agreement with the Canadian mining corporation Constantine Metal Resources, and in July 2019, the parties entered a ten year lease arrangement which commits the mining company to specified exploration and other work, and provides CIRI with an opportunity to reap profits and invest in the venture. The lease contains an option to renew should the project prove economically viable.
Constantine Metals has sparked strong community opposition in southeast Alaska, where its work exploring the Palmer prospect above the salmon-rich Chilkat River in Haines has raised a variety of water quality, fish and other concerns. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council produced a compelling film called “Rock, Paper, Fish” about the project and the community concerns with it.
In August 2019, Constantine Metals spun-off a new corporation – High Gold – to lead exploration work at the Johnson Tract. High Gold CEO Darwin Green had previously worked on the Palmer Project in Haines, and he raised eyebrows when he told a mining conference in Vancouver, B.C., that mining in Alaska is like “going into a third world country with low hanging fruit, but you’re in a first world jurisdiction.”
In Spring 2020, High Gold released a technical report touting the high-grade mineralization of the Johnson Tract, and in Summer 2020, it embarked on an aggressive drilling program to attempt to better-define the resource. As with all junior mining interests, however, questions arise about environmental safeguards and worker health and safety. In early August 2020, a helicopter servicing the Johnson Tract exploration program crashed; fortunately, only the pilot was on board, and he was not seriously injured, but the incident highlights the heightened risks that accompany mining activities in the remote and rugged Alaska wilderness.
The latest iteration of Johnson Tract exploration work has now captured the attention of local people and businesses concerned about the industrialization of their wild Alaska. As the State of Alaska grapples with a massive budget shortfall and politicians promise everyone a full Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), revenues from oil and gas are increasingly unable to keep the state afloat. In response, many corporate trade groups and their allies in government have been touting mining as the state’s next golden goose. And while massive projects like Pebble and Donlin capture most of the attention, smaller prospects such as Palmer and the Johnson Tract promise similar disruptions to the abundant and sustainable resources that support countless local people, families and businesses.
Inletkeeper will continue to work with the local people around the Johnson Tract mining prospect to ensure the highest levels of accountability, protection and safety, and to ensure the very things that define who we are as Alaskans aren’t destroyed for short term profit.