(AP) — A potential copper and gold mine at the headwaters of one of the world's richest salmon runs is both an environmentalist rallying cry and a potent issue in development-happy Alaska that could help Democratic Sen. Mark Begich survive a strong re-election challenge. The Pebble Mine project that's on Tuesday's ballot embodies the paradoxes of Alaska politics, starting with the unlikely trio of conservatives who put the issue on the map; the late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, GOP operative Art Hackney and Bob Gillam, a wealthy asset manager bankrolling his third Alaska ballot measure to try to cripple the mine.
"If it wasn't for Bob weighing in early, with his resources to get the word out, I don't think we'd be in as good a position as we are," said Tim Bristol, head of the Alaska office of Trout Unlimited, one of the environmental groups spearheading the national fight against the mine. Gillam owns a 12,000-square-foot hunting and fishing lodge that could be affected by the mine. He did not respond to interview requests. Critics have derided him for caring more about his vacation home than the jobs that a mine could create. Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, stresses that it has not filed formal plans yet and much of Gillam's attacks have been alarmist.
"This is America and everyone has a right to express himself," Heatwole said in an interview. "But some of the ads that have been done against us have been fear-mongering." It's unusual for a mine to be so strongly opposed in Alaska, which owes much of its economy to extractive industries such as oil and hard-rock mining. But Pebble Mine casts development against another signature industry, salmon fishing.
The Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that discharge from the mine could destroy the world's largest salmon fishery, in Bristol Bay. In July, the federal agency acted to limit mining in the area. Pebble is contesting that move in court. Begich has seized on the issue, saying the mine should never be dug. His Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan, the former director of Alaska's natural resources agency, won't take a position on the project, arguing that the state should make the call.
Begich and his supporters have hammered Sullivan on the issue. The Democratic-aligned super political action committee Vote-Vets spent more than $600,000 on a television ad featuring a veteran who is now a fisherman complaining that Sullivan's refusal to stop the mine could cost him the fisherman his livelihood. Political professionals in the state acknowledge that the mine is now widely opposed. "Pebble tests well, tests really, really well as an issue," said Vote-Vets director John Stoltz.
It was not always the case.
About a decade ago, Hackney was talking to Stevens, one of his clients and a champion of development. The senator told Hackney about preparations for a project to extract more than four million metric tons of ore in southwestern Alaska, above the rivers and lakes that feed Bristol Bay, home of half the world's wild sockeye salmon. Stevens connected Hackney with Gillam, who's called Alaska's richest man.
Gillam grew up in Alaska, runs an Anchorage-based investment firm and flies his own float plane to his vacation home in Lake Clark National Park. He bankrolled the first challenge to the mine, an unsuccessful 2007 statewide ballot measure, which effectively would have barred it. After that failed, he helped sponsor a measure to ban the mine; it was thrown out by the Alaska Supreme Court. Between campaigns, Hackney continued to air ads against the project, warning of its impact on salmon fishing. That's where the intrigue began.
A fundraiser with Gillam's anti-Pebble group took thousands of pages of internal emails to Pebble after leaving in a pay dispute. The trove included messages showing a complex scheme used to conceal the fact that Gillam was the source of much of the statewide initiative's money. The consortium behind Pebble filed a complaint with Alaska's Public Offices Commission, which Gillam settled by paying $100,000 in 2012. Gillam and Hackney, who claimed millions of dollars in lost fees as clients fled his practice, sued the fundraiser and Pebble, and settled for an undisclosed sum and an apology from Pebble.
Meanwhile, the EPA was targeting the mine and investors were fleeing. Though the EPA has halted Pebble for now, Hackney says that is the wrong way to stop the project, which is why the current ballot measure would leave the mine's future up to a vote of the Legislature. Expressing a long-held distrust of the federal government, he said, "We need an Alaska solution for an Alaska problem." In an irony that has not been lost on political observers, Hackney is running a super PAC that supports Sullivan's candidacy.
Anders Gustafson runs the Renewable Resources Coalition, an anti-Pebble group that includes Alaska Natives in the mine's vicinity, fishermen and Gillam. Gustafson is also working on the current ballot measure. He said he thinks the fight against Pebble marks a shift in Alaska's identity as the state becomes more diverse. "Alaska for a long time seemed like an endless supply to a lot of people," Gustafson said. "But Alaska has gotten smaller."