A plan to create a Bristol Bay game refuge in honor of former Gov. Jay Hammond -- and perhaps erect a new obstacle in the path of the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine -- brought a rare visit to the state Capitol last week from Bella Hammond, the governor's soft-spoken widow.
Never one to grab the limelight, Bella Hammond broke with tradition when she toured legislators' offices to promote the game refuge idea. She said later she could remember only one short foray among legislators during the eight years she lived in the governor's mansion.
"I thought it would be wise to keep my remarks very short and simple," the 74-year-old Hammond said this week in Anchorage, where she is preparing to return to her Lake Clark homestead. "I think Jay would first and foremost think of protecting that area, mainly the fish and the game."
The Jay Hammond State Game Refuge proposal, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, opens a new front in Juneau in the escalating battle over the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine.
The bill would create a refuge of 5 million to 7 million acres of state land in the Bristol Bay headwaters, where Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. has talked of excavating a huge mine. The bill would create an advisory committee including local residents to help the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manage the refuge.
Supporters of the bill say such a refuge could make mining more expensive but wouldn't forbid it. They say it would mainly ensure that any development does not harm fish and wildlife, and give Fish and Game a clearer role in managing the area.
"It calls Northern Dynasty's bluff. They've been promising the mine won't hurt Bristol Bay's fishery," said Scott Brennan, the chief operating officer of the anti-mine Renewable Resources Coalition.
The Bristol Bay region is home to the world's biggest sockeye salmon fishery, and its headwaters provide the most famous unspoiled trout fishing in North America.
Northern Dynasty says the ground north of Iliamna Lake has potential to be one of the largest mines in the world. Supporters say it could provide vital economic diversification for the region.
Passage of Stevens' bill would likely foreclose development of any mine, Northern Dynasty said. Significantly, company executives said, the bill would bar storage of industrial waste, which would probably mean mine tailings. The company has applied to construct a dam rising more than 700 feet high to hold this waste rock from the mine -- though executives say the final mine design has not been settled on.
They argue the refuge could block other types of resource development as well.
"They would be foreclosing economic opportunities for an entire region forever," Northern Dynasty spokesman Sean Magee said.
A proposal to create a smaller fish refuge in the area kicked up a fuss in front of the state Board of Fisheries last December. That proposal was referred to a committee for further study.
The Hammond refuge bill was introduced in the Legislature on Jan. 26 and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. But the halls of the Capitol are rumbling this year with talk of the Pebble mine.
A Dillingham legislator introduced a bill Wednesday to penalize corporations up to $1 million per day for polluting Bristol Bay salmon streams.
The bill, House Bill 134, would prevent anyone from diverting or polluting water that runs into five rivers -- the Nushagak, Kvichak, Naknek, Egegik and Ugashik -- that nourish Bristol Bay's fisheries. Two of those rivers are near the Pebble deposit.
The bill proposed by Democrat Rep. Bryce Edgmon would block anyone from damming salmon-bearing water bodies within the five river drainages. The penalty for violating the proposed law: $10 to $5,000 per day for an individual and $100,000 to $1 million per day for a corporation.
Both pro- and anti-mine forces have lined up top lobbyists. Both sides are also running big media campaigns and enlisting well-known Alaskans to speak for their cause.
One major lobbyist caught in the middle is Jerry Reinwand, who once served as Gov. Hammond's chief of staff. Last year, Reinwand lobbied in Juneau for Northern Dynasty. He said Bella Hammond told him what she thought about that.
The Reinwands and Hammonds were close friends. Jay Hammond died in 2005, and Reinwand said he dropped his mining client rather than offend Bella.
Last week, it was Reinwand himself who guided Bella Hammond through the legislative halls. At the same time his daughter, Debbie Reinwand, who works for the Anchorage advertising and public relations agency Bradley Reid, was serving as chief spokeswoman for a new group funded by Northern Dynasty called Truth About Pebble.
With their homestead at Lake Clark and their commercial fishing beach site in Naknek, Jay and Bella Hammond considered the Bristol Bay region home. During the long debate over federal lands in Alaska in the 1970s, Gov. Hammond pushed unsuccessfully to create a cooperative-management scheme for the region linking federal, state and private landowners.
Hammond was governor from 1974 to 1982. While they lived in Juneau, Bella would often return to Bristol Bay with their daughters during the summers to fish and garden.
Regarding her visit to Juneau this month, Bella Hammond said she tried to focus on protecting fisheries. But she was not reluctant afterward to talk about the mine.
"I don't have all the answers about Pebble Mine, but one has to wonder if they're compatible, the fisheries and a mine of that magnitude," she said. "Before Jay died, he attended a meeting in the Iliamna area and he was quoted as saying he couldn't think of a worse place for a mine. I'll always remember that remark."
Bella Hammond said she found the legislators "very gracious and kind." She was especially pleased by a talk she had with Gov. Sarah Palin. She said she found Palin to be a good listener and said she is excited by the strong support Palin has had so far from the Alaska public.
"That's really a refreshing change," Bella Hammond said. "I am so tired of the negativity and criticism our leaders get."
Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or in Homer at 907-235-4244. Reporter Elizabeth Bluemink contributed to this article.
What is it:
Senate Bill 67, a proposal to create a Jay Hammond State Game Refuge. It would:
Protect salmon, trout, caribou, brown bear and other species in a new game refuge on state lands between the Kvichak and Nushagak-Mulchatna river drainages.
Allow hunting and fishing but prevent anyone from staking a new mineral claim inside the refuge.
Ban the storage of industrial waste or pollution discharges that do not meet water quality requirements for fish.
Protect access to existing private property and pending land claims within the refuge.