Some Alaskans are dusting off an old weapon to limit industrial development on state lands prized for fish and wildlife.
The weapon is new refuges. And two of them have been unsheathed this year on lands the mining industry is exploring.
The Legislature will review a proposal this year to create a 5 million- to 7 million-acre game refuge in Bristol Bay's headwaters, which would envelop the vast and controversial copper and gold Pebble mineral prospect, located in the headwaters of the world's largest sockeye fishery, subsistence fisheries and world-class sportfishing lodges.
The Bristol Bay refuge bill proposed by state Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, wouldn't take away Pebble's mining claims but it would prevent future dumping of mining waste.
Hundreds of miles away, other Alaskans are targeting the Tangle Lakes region, with its large Nelchina caribou herd, as a possible refuge.
Tensions over the Tangle Lakes are building.
At the popular lake-dotted hunting and recreation area along the Denali Highway, Nevada Star Resources Corp., a Vancouver, British Columbia-based mining company, has sunk $14 million to explore for platinum, nickel and other minerals. The company plans to spend another $4 million this year.
The Board of Game plans to review the Tangle Lakes refuge proposal again this fall after listening to testimony on it last week in Anchorage.
The Alaska mining industry and its advocates are worried.
Naidine Johnson owns mining claims in the area and is the longtime owner of the Tangle River Inn, which reaps business from mining firms that began poking around the hills in the 1990s.
"It's a horrible thing they are trying to do. They are trying to get the miners out," said Johnson of the refuge's advocates.
A LAND OF REFUGES
Refuges have long been a tool to protect fish and animals on Alaska lands.
"The ability to set aside areas is right in our constitution," said Lance Trasky, a former habitat biologist who supports Stevens' bill to create a Jay Hammond State Game Refuge in the Bristol Bay headwaters.
"When people don't think there's enough protection, they want to ramp up the rules," added Larry Smith, a Homer builder and former state Board of Game member who is working with Stevens on the proposal.
A similar chain of events occurred 30 years ago, in the midst of the trans-Alaska pipeline construction boom, soon after the Legislature created the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area in the scenic bay next to Homer.
Two years after creation of the critical habitat area, Gov. Jay Hammond asked the Legislature to ban oil rigs in Kachemak Bay and pay oil companies millions to buy back their leases.
His request was locked in controversy until an exploration rig malfunctioned, spilling an estimated 200 gallons of diesel into the bay. A week later, the Legislature enacted the ban and agreed to buy back the drilling leases.
The state classifies refuges, sanctuaries and critical habitat areas as lands essential to protect fish and wildlife. In them, state biologists have a greater role in managing the land, and developers must apply for special Fish and Game permits to ensure their projects don't conflict with the refuge's fish and wildlife protection goals.
About 20 percent of Alaska -- or 74 million acres, the size of Arizona -- are designated refuges, most of it by the federal government.
Many allow mining or oil drilling, though one in particular, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has become synonymous with the epic struggle between conservation and resource exploitation.
Since statehood in 1959, the Legislature has created 12 refuges, 17 critical habitat areas, three sanctuaries and two ranges for bison and moose.
NOT ALWAYS A WEAPON
Not all refuges were created as barriers to development.
The Legislature, which creates refuges, approved several on the western shore of Cook Inlet -- such as Trading Bay, Susitna Flats and Redoubt Bay -- as important hunting and fishing areas. These refuges allow oil drilling to continue as long as the rigs stay out of prime bird habitat.
One proposal now circulating in Interior Alaska wasn't prompted by a development project, and its proponents don't want to be lumped with the Pebble refuge seekers.
"It's a whole different creature from Pebble," said Greg Roczicka, a Bethel hunter and former Board of Game member.
Roczicka and village-based hunters around the Holitna River in the Yukon-Kuskokwim basin want the Legislature to create a fishing, hunting and trapping reserve to boost subsistence food supplies. Roczicka said locals are concerned because the area's moose population has shrunk, which many in the area attribute to increased wolf predation.
The proposal is being reviewed by Bush legislative staff and the Board of Fisheries.
If a company ever decides to build a mine at Tangle Lakes, the stricter rules of a refuge would protect the Nelchina herd, which winters in the area, says Ruth McHenry, a Copper Center activist who travels there with her family to pick berries and hunt caribou.
But the mining industry and its backers warn that creating new refuges could damage attempts to develop and diversify Alaska's economy.
If refuge proposals continue to proliferate, "What we are going to end up doing is eliminate all resource development in the state because we will withdraw all of the lands," said Bonnie Williams, a member of the state's Board of Fisheries, during a recent committee meeting in Anchorage.
Even if the refuge allows industrial development, permits for a massive dam or industrial-waste dump could be rejected if biologists decided the permits weren't compatible with the refuge's goals for fish or wildlife protection.
A ban on industrial-waste disposal would make it impossible to build a mine at Pebble, according to executives with Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the company exploring Pebble on state land north of Iliamna Lake.
Northern Dynasty officials said they oppose Stevens' bill because they say it wouldn't allow a mine to dispose of its tailings.
The Lake and Peninsula Borough has also raised concerns that a refuge could limit economic growth in the borough. The proposed Jay Hammond refuge would encompass the borough's northern half, said borough Mayor Glen Alsworth.
A refuge's consequences could go beyond mining or oil, he said, if its managers put "onerous" restrictions on hunters and fishermen as well.
"We just really have to evaluate the consequences," Alsworth said. "We must ask ourselves as a state about development of resources and how to go about it to keep us viable."
But Trasky, the biologist, said a refuge is a natural fit for Bristol Bay's headwaters. "It's the last great salmon-producing area in the world. This will provide tremendous economic benefit. ... Forever," he said.
At Tangle Lakes, Nevada Star has continued to explore while other mining explorers have pulled out. Nevada Star says more exploration is needed to find out if the area can be mined.
The company's president, Robert Angrisano, said that he has risked millions of his company's money to explore the Tangle Lakes area, and that environmentalists just don't understand the strategic value of the minerals he is seeking.
Reporter Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com or 257-4317.