The gold mine proposed for this stunning open country might be the largest in North America. It would involve building the biggest dam in the world at the headwaters of the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, which it would risk obliterating.
Epic even by Alaskan standards, the planned Pebble Mine has divided a state normally enthusiastic about extracting whatever value can be found in its wide-open spaces. It is an ambivalence that has upended traditional politics, divided families and come to rest at kitchen tables like the one 75-year-old Olga Balluta sat beside one autumn afternoon, listing her favorite foods.
"Brown bear fat and black bear fat. Fish gut salad -- crackly when you eat it," said Balluta, a member of the local native population that would be most directly affected by the mine.
From his chair by the sink, neighbor Rick Delkittie said, "I know my grandfather used to tell me, 'Don't ever get used to the white man's food.' "
That lesson, with its implied warning against dependence on anyone outside the land and waters that have nourished local residents for nearly 10,000 years, guides the subtle, shifting and uniquely Alaskan calculation that will decide whether Pebble goes forward.
Environmentalists, fishing interests allied
Environmentalists and commercial fishing interests have mounted a well-funded public relations campaign against the project. Mining companies are investing hundreds of millions to make it inevitable. The two sides agree only that Pebble's fate is likely to pivot on the sentiments of a few thousand local residents who would have to live beside it.
But how do they live?
By tradition and law, natives have the run of the area for the moose, caribou and most of all the salmon that provide sustenance in a place hundreds of miles from the nearest road. But the outside world moves closer with each generation, and appetites change.
The only food on the table where Balluta sat were oily paper pouches of french fries hand carried on an airplane from a McDonald's in Anchorage. Lined up on the counter behind were jumbo containers of Hills Bros. coffee, CoffeeMate and Lucky Charms.
"That's all they learn to eat now," she said, gesturing to a granddaughter in the living room. "It's really changing."
The mining companies count on that change, dangling the prospect of cash incomes even while bowing deeply to traditions that no native consciously rejects.
"If we can't show to the satisfaction of the local people that we can protect the fisheries, we will not advance this project," said mining company spokesman Sean Magee. "We have no interest in replacing one resource with another, and we understand the burden of proof is ours."
The effort is led by Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Vancouver company that signed a partnership this summer with global mining giant Anglo-American to develop the site on the peninsula between Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay, 180 miles southwest of Anchorage.
The joint effort will spend almost $100 million this year on exploratory drilling and consultants hired to prepare an environmental impact statement that starts the permitting process. Though the mine itself remains years from reality, the priority is hiring. So far, about one-third of the 150 people working at Pebble's local headquarters in the village of Iliamna are natives from the surrounding area.
"It's all about getting the 'social license,' " said one Northern Dynasty manager, using industry jargon for obtaining permission of the local community, and speaking privately because the company authorized only Magee to be quoted.
"It's not rape and pillage anymore. It can't be."
By all appearances it's an uphill battle. A recent survey by Bristol Bay Native Corp., which under federal law represents 8,000 natives with roots in the area, found 69 percent oppose the mine, 57 percent "strongly."
Problem is salmon
The problem is salmon. Wild sockeye course through the bay and famously surge up the rivers that converge exactly where geologists found rich deposits of gold and copper.
"I can't imagine a worse location for a mine of this type, unless it was in my kitchen," Jay Hammond, who was governor of Alaska from 1974 to 1982 and died in 2005, once said. With commodity prices soaring, Magee said the find constitutes "one of the most important ore bodies in the world today." But mining it all would involve crushing 8 billion tons of rock to extract the mere 0.6 percent that is ore. The other 99.4 percent would be piled as tailings in a massive embankment that must be kept covered with water, lest the extractive chemicals react with air to create sulfuric acids that would carry heavy metals downstream.
"Heavy metals and fish generally don't mix, and copper is one of the most toxic heavy metals to fish," said Carol Ann Woody, a fish biologist who until last year worked for the federal government.
Woody said new research shows that tiny increases in copper levels -- a couple of parts per billion -- can wipe out a salmon's olfactory senses. The fish use their sense of smell to distinguish predator from prey and, crucially, to find their way to the streams where they are adapted to spawn.
"So you wouldn't know your home," Woody said. It would "be like walking into your grandma's kitchen and it smells like the dentist's."
The risk made an instant opponent of Alaska's commercial fishermen who harvest the firm, flaky wild fish considered superior to farmed salmon. The threat to the $325 million-a-year industry also made an opponent of the most powerful Alaska politician, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R), who is normally ardently pro-development.
Also alarmed are about 50 lodges that fly in sport fishermen who pay as much as $1,200 a night.
But no one has a deeper stake in salmon than the natives. Twice a year, families haul sockeye out of the water by the hundreds, split them in half and hang them on lodge poles to dry for canning.
"When they first come up in July, we get what we need," Delkittie said at the shore of Six-Mile Lake, a dozen miles from where Pebble helicopters swarm between exploratory wells drilled into tundra too squishy to support a road.
"When October comes, it's time to go fishing again. We eat so much salmon, we have a way to prepare it for dessert."
Native opinion not monolithic
Native opinion is far from monolithic, however. Long-standing rifts based on tribal and regional politics have been aggravated by Dynasty's largess.
The firm pays premiums to rent lodges and homes around Lake Iliamna and this year flew natives for weekends in Anchorage, handing out envelopes of $600 in cash as spending money.
"Pretty good money once you get used to it," said Garrett Anelon, who has earned $6,000 a month before taxes as a Pebble employee. He was seated in front of a TV set with his brother and a friend, playing Halo 3 while weighing the traditional against the modern.
"Traditional life is pretty good," Anelon said. "Save you a lot of money. You just go out and get some gas and a dollar a bullet."
The gas fuels the ATVs that native youths drive down the few paved roads and into the bush to hunt.
"Yeah," said Garrett's brother, Gerald Jr., who goes by "Moose." "The mine helps you out with little things like that. But we don't have as much time to shoot when you're working."
On long winter nights the brothers find video games a better pastime than the drinking that "a lot of folks do." Their mother, who manages local hires at Pebble, spoke with moving understatement about seeing residents move off welfare.
But cash vs. freedom is a tension that favors part-time work. Officials at Bristol Bay Native Corp. say they expect few of the 1,000 promised Pebble jobs to be filled by natives, who have scant appetite for living weeks at a time in job-site dorms.
"I don't care for it, but I work for them," said Dwight Anelon, 20, a driller helper shopping at Iliamna's only store.
June Balluta, who rents the only hotel room in nearby Nondalton, said tourism makes a better fit. "We're on the doorstep of God's country," she said in a lakeside log cabin with a spectacular view. "We just have to get motivated."