Running wild

"The reality today is that if the commercial fishery collapses,Cordova is in serious trouble," warns Kristin Smith. She is thehead of the Copper River Watershed Project, a community groupworking to broaden and better manage the area's economy whilepreserving the natural environment of the watershed and the fisheryfor commercial, subsistence, and sport uses.

Smith thinks tourism is part of the answer. While there's nomistaking Cordova for anything but a commercial fishing town, it isclose to some of the state's most spectacular scenery. There isexcellent birding in April and May, with pristine fishing, hiking,and kayaking all summer.

Some landowners in the Copper River Watershed are looking to itsnatural resources for more immediate returns, however. ChugachAlaska Corporation, which manages 308,000 acres in the watershed onbehalf of Native Alaskan shareholders, has proposed a road andlogging project that environmentalists claim would threatensalmon-spawning streams and the Copper River fishery.

The issue isn't simple. "We want to create an economy here soour kids won't have to go to Los Angeles to get a job," says JohnF. C. Johnson, corporate vice president of cultural resources forChugach Alaska. "For us, the almighty dollar is not the bottomline. Salmon are important. Our children are important. We've beenhere for 5,000 years, and we know that you don't destroy the nestyou sleep in."

Not all of the region's Native Alaskans believe that developmentis the answer. "There are roughly 17 million acres within theCopper River Watershed, and very little of it is protected fromdevelopment," says Dune Lankard, an Eyak Indian with the EyakPreservation Council. "These corporate Indians think that clear-cutlogging, oil drilling, strip mining, and selling land are the onlyways to make money for native shareholders," he says. Lankard looksto responsibly managed ecotourism and a sustainable, healthy salmonfishery as sources of income that can be developed withoutsacrificing the environment.

"Salmon are to the native people of Alaska's coastal temperaterain forest like the buffalo were to the Plains Indians," Lankardsays. "If we lose the wild salmon, we will lose the spiritualconnection to our home."

The way of the salmon

The ocean's tide is turning as Covel heads back to Cordova. Farupriver the forested flanks of the cloud-draped Chugach Mountainsare broken by the cracked blue ice of glaciers. Like most trueanglers, Covel may have been disappointed in the day's catch, buthe still loved the fishing. "I followed my stomach here in 1980,"he says with a boyish grin as he guns the boat up the channel. "Andthen I discovered that there's no more beautiful place to go towork."

The watershed is beautiful. Visitors can drive the 50 miles ofmostly gravel road out to see the salmon-counting sonar station andthe Million Dollar Bridge at the road's end. Built in 1910 for arailroad carrying copper ore from the Kennecott Mine to the port inCordova, the bridge partly collapsed at its north end during the1964 earthquake ― one reason a proposed road to Cordova hasnever been built. From the bridge's deck, you can see the wide,crenulated face of Miles Glacier 4 miles to the east and theimposing, blue-crevassed flank of Childs Glacier barely 1 mile tothe west ― a million-dollar view. The immensity of thelandscape and the power of the roiling, silt-gray river leave onewondering how such a fishery could ever disappear.

The eradication of a wild salmon run would have beeninconceivable to Lewis and Clark, too, when they first witnessedthe run on the even mightier Columbia River in 1805. Biologist JimLichatowich estimates that at least 192 separate salmon andsteelhead trout populations, or stocks, spawned in the ColumbiaRiver system at that time ― roughly 10 million to 16 millionfish. Today 67 of those stocks are extinct, 36 are highlyendangered, and 50 more are at risk. Only the ghost of a wildsalmon run ― estimated at less than half a million wildspawning fish last year ― remains.

The Columbia, of course, is only one of many imperiled rivers inthe West. And Cordova is only one of many struggling fishing towns.But if Cordovans can protect their salmon, then maybe othercommunities will take a new look at their own dying waterways. Wildsalmon are more than a sustainable, renewable source of food. Theysymbolize not only the health and beauty of a free-flowing river,but the wisdom of native cultures and the simple rewards of arapidly vanishing way of life.

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