“Those conditions are OK with us,” argued Richardson. Hsieh did not fl at-out reject the request – in fact, she said, her job is to help facilitate the wishes of the Council, not to make such decisions on her own.
“If the Council as a whole is supportive of expanding habitat purchases beyond the spill area, it would be a major new initiative for the habitat program,” she added. That small window gives Richardson, Lankard, Hoover and others hope. This coal deposit has a long history of people fighting to protect it, and they’ve had setbacks before. Th is is yet another hurdle, they argue, and one they are determined to successfully overcome.
A HISTORY OF A FARAWAY PLACE
So, who are the owners of this coal-rich land that also happens to be one of the most precious ecosystems in the world, and how have they managed to keep hold of such a treasure? The story is convoluted but begins in 1906 with then-President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first U.S. Forest Service chief. Roosevelt and Pinchot moved the Chugach National Forest boundary line eastward to include the Bering River coalfields.
The goal? To protect the land from coal mining by the JP Morgan Guggenheim Alaska Syndicate. Th e rich-in-coal region would have provided coal to fuel the Copper River railroad, which was running from the Kennecott Copper Mine in McCarthy to Cordova. But Roosevelt and Pinchot wanted the land to stay pristine.
For many years, that is exactly what happened. But with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, the newly formed Chugach Alaska Corp. claimed the 73,000-acre Bering River coalfields as part of the 1982 Chugach Settlement Agreement.
Then the land came under threat of development again. Now the corporation could do what it liked with the land, so when a South Korean corporation called the Korea Alaska Development Corp. expressed interest in developing the westernmost bituminous coal tracts, Chugach Alaska Corp. formed a partnership to develop the coalfields. Aft er the 1991 bankruptcy reorganization by Chugach Alaska, they transferred 11,000 acres of subsurface coalfields to KADCO.
“Therefore, this is the only subsurface coal title in the United States owned by a South Korean corporation,” said Hoover, with the Eyak Preservation Council. “KADCO aggressively wanted to mine the coal in the late 1990s, when coal was still very much in demand, as it still is in Asia today.”
In 1997, the conservation community caught wind of KADCO’s plan to build an exploratory road through the Delta to access the coalfi elds. The demonstrations were swift and effective, with local and Lower 48 activists arriving to protest the development.
“It became the first nonviolent environmental direct action in Alaska, when six people (including one Chugach shareholder and a local commercial fisherman) chained themselves to bridge-pieces that were planned to be placed on Clear Creek in the first 1.5 miles of road,” Hoover said.
In the end, though, the Chugach Alaska Corp. was not swayed so much by demonstrators as they were the financial burden.
“The Chugach Alaska Corp. tried to begin building the road across the Copper River Delta to access its private ANCSA in holdings, but realized that it would cost tens of millions of dollars,” Lankard said.
“Then there is the huge cost of building the infrastructure to safely remove the resources and the cost to get the resources to market. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it makes no economic sense to undevelop an already highly developed thriving ecosystem.”
With the road project on hold but developers still eager to see if extraction was feasible, the fight moved to Washington, D.C., where a “Chugach Road Rider” was attached to an appropriations funding bill in 1999.
Again, Hoover said, the fight heated up: The road rider should not pass without state and federal environmental clearance, opponents argued. No environmental impact statement, environmental assessment or restoration bond had been conducted, and without these safety measures in place, there should be no road.
“We managed to get our plea all the way to President Clinton, who deleted the road rider over the weekend before the vote on the bill,” Hoover said. “There has not been an effort to build a road across the Delta to the coalfields since 1998.”
Kati Capozzi, Alaska Resource Development Council, said its group can’t speak directly to the Bering River coalfields, but its mission remains to support Alaska’s economic growth through responsible resource development.
“We support the expansion and increased production for deposits as well as new exploration of Alaska’s vast mineral resources,” she said. “Access and infrastructure, or lack thereof, is indeed a great challenge in Alaska, and RDC advocates for increased access to and across publics lands for resource and community.”
STILL IN LIMBO
Today, the Bering River Coalfi elds remain under ownership of Chugach Alaska Corp. and the Korea Alaska Development Corp., but Lankard and Richardson say both corporations are open to selling the land with a conservation goal. Despite the vast amounts of high-quality coal that is thought to be in the region – estimates range from 59 million metric tons to 3 billion metric tons – access to it is difficult and would be immensely costly to harvest.