Legislators create Taku River Fact-Finding Task Force

Juneau lawmakers are looking for members to serve on a new Taku River Task Force.

The river is the most abundant salmon-producer in Southeast Alaska. It’s also one of the most studied in terms of biology, but with the renewal of mining at the headwaters, many other questions remain.

“We’re just trying to find out exactly who controls the Taku River,” says Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan.

He says it’s not even clear what agency is responsible for monitoring industrial vessel traffic on the river – the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Natural Resources, or Environmental Conservation? Or the U.S. Coast Guard?

The task force will also look at the effectiveness of state and federal laws and regulations regarding the river as well as review the health of Taku River fish stocks, habitat and game resources.

A proposal to create a legislative task force to study the issues went nowhere during the last legislative session. But the meetings between sport and commercial fishermen and Taku River property owners proved to be contentious. Representative Beth Kerttula says it was clear everyone needed the same information.

“It just was obvious we were not operating with the same information,” she says. “Some of it was good, some we weren’t sure about and we needed to be sure about it. So our common sense way to go forward was to find out the facts and get them out there for everybody.”

While the catalyst for the task force is the redevelopment of the Tulsequah Chief Mine at the headwaters of the Taku River, it’s the extraordinary salmon production of the river that drives everyone’s concerns, says gillnetter Jev Shelton.

“With or without the Tulsequah Chief Mine, the river really does deserve an added measure of protection to be sure that productivity isn’t compromised,” he says.

Canadian company Chieftain Metals hopes to start production of the multi-metal mine in 2014. The main access to the mine is up the Taku River.

Shelton is among the advocates for the task force. He believes it should result in real protections of the river.

“This is intended to be a forum for trying to put together, hopefully, a piece of legislation that could get through and provide a more institutionalized protection for the river, to which chieftain or anybody else would have to respond appropriately,” he says.

Egan says it’s important to make sure that any activities on the river don’t hurt the fishing industry and other river users.

“I’m not opposed to mining,” he says. “I just want to make sure they do it right and we set guidelines on our side of the border.”

The eight-member committee will represent Alaska Natives with ties to the Taku River, commercial and private recreational property owners in the Taku River valley, commercial and sport fishing, and a biologist who does not work for government. State resource departments will provide expertise to the group.

“It’s up to the task force to make recommendations, not bureaucrats,” Egan says. “We tried to keep government out of it, but using government as the resource to these eight members of the committee.

People interested in serving on the Taku River Fact-Finding Task Force should contact Kerttula, Egan, or Rep. Cathy Munoz. Meetings will start early next month. A final report will be submitted to the delegation by mid-December.