Taku River task force draft report

Courtesy Rivers without Borders

A task force looking at the health of the Taku River and impact of future development should come up with recommendations for more river protections.

That’s the sentiment of much of the public testimony on the draft report of the Taku River Fact-Finding Task Force. The task force took comments on Saturday.

The transboundary river runs from British Columbia, Canada, to Juneau, and is Southeast Alaska’s top salmon producer.

Rosemarie Alexander has more on the work of the task force.

The draft report outlines what the volunteer group learned over a month of hearings with federal and state agencies, Canadian mine owners, and other officials.

It was tasked with reviewing Taku River fish stocks, habitat and game resources; the agencies responsible for monitoring industrial vessel traffic and spill response; and the effectiveness of state and federal laws and regulations on the river.

The catalyst for the task force was legislation drafted a year ago, but never introduced, which would have declared the river critical habitat. The volatile idea evolved into a bill calling for a legislative task force, but that ran aground when sport and commercial fishermen, property owners, and conservationists could only agree to disagree.

Juneau legislators then created the Taku River Fact-Finding Task Force outside of the legislative process.

The group of volunteers represents river users, and they’ve stuck strictly to the facts.

“We were hoping that this task force would be assigned the responsibility of what array of options might be available to protect the Taku,” said Alaska Trollers Association Executive Director Dale Kelley. She echoed others who found what they called gaps in the report and a lack of analysis.

“I think to a lot of people it only seems logical to then discuss what are the next steps, what are the ways to address these shortcomings,” said Chris Zimmer, of the conservation group Rivers without Borders.

Only a handful of people testified at Saturday’s hearing. Some suggested the task force identify the strengths and weaknesses of laws and regulations affecting the river. Others want more water quality information, oversight on barging, or direction in working with the Canadians.

Taku River watershed. Courtesy Ed Jones, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Chieftain Metals plans a 2,000-ton per day operation at the old Tulsequah Chief Mine by 2015. The Canadian-owned mine at the river’s headwaters has been dormant since the 1950s, and many Southeast Alaskans are wary of any company promising no impacts on the Taku. Chieftain told the task force that it hopes to build an access road, rather than barge up the river. Even if it does, Zimmer reminded the task force, another proposed Canadian mine – the Big Polaris –plans to barge up the Taku.

“B.C. has very aggressive mining plans in the transboundary region, both in the Taku and the Stikine, and right now, I don’t think DNR, F & G have the funds and ability to engage with that make sure our downstream interests are protected,” Zimmer said.

Taku River property owner Neil MacKinnon has been on the river for more than 50 years. He remembers the days when the old Tulsequah Chief was operating. But after reading the reports and studying the statistics collected by the task force, he doesn’t see the problems others are so worried about.

“Where’s the habitat problem if we need to worry about habitat, and where’s the problem with fish?”

Errol Champion has also owned property on the Taku for decades.

“The people who are living up there don’t agree with what we’re being told and what’s being reported in this report,” he said. “One of the goals here is to discuss the status of all habitat for all species, and there’s no effort put in toward game. I think I read one sentence where game is mentioned,” he said.

Champion told the task force that there’s too much concern about barging, prompting this response from member Mike Peterson:

“What concerns me on this task force is the potential for barge traffic that’s going to be coming up over the next two, three, four, if no road 14 / 20 years. That’s what concerns me,” Peterson said.

Alaska has no jurisdiction over the Tulsequah Chief Mine or any other development on the B.C. side of the Taku. The state also has no authority over barging on the river.

“To me, personally, barging is the issue,” said Juneau Senator Dennis Egan.

He has been watching the task force process carefully and looks forward to recommendations from the group, especially on dealing with the Canadians.

“It’s really tough to control what happens north of the border, and we’re just trying to get a good working relationship with the government of Canada, British Columbia especially, and make sure they understand how valuable this resource is not only to us but to them as well,” Egan said. “I think we can come up with some recommendations and I think we can come to an agreement with the province.”

The Taku River Task Fact-Finding Task Force is still collecting comments then it will begin hashing out the gaps in the report and, perhaps, come up with some recommendations.

But Juneau legislators have made it clear the group should not draft legislation – that’s their job.

Recent headlines