About the Region
The Chilkat is in the northern part of the transboundary watershed region. It drains an area of 1,400 square miles, beginning in British Columbia at the Chilkat Glacier, into the Chilkat River which flows down past Haines, Alaska into the Lynn Canal, and out into the bays of Southeast Alaska near Juneau.
Chilkat means “salmon storehouse” in the native Tlingit language, and the Chilkat watershed has high value spawning and rearing areas for all five species of Pacific salmon.
The Chilkat River is the most productive coho spawning and rearing area in Southeast Alaska, and also provides excellent habitat for wild sockeye, Chinook, and chum salmon runs. A combination of outstanding wild salmon habitat and a warm water reservoir supports an annual congregation of Bald Eagles. Other wildlife species in the Chilkat watershed include brown and black bear, moose, lynx, wolves, coyotes, mink, marten, river otters, trumpeter swans, owls, hawks, geese, herons, 15 species of ducks, and over 30 species of forest and shore birds. This productive watershed supports numerous commercial and sport fishing enterprises, and abundant subsistence harvests of fish and game for the Tlingit village of Klukwan, and native and non-native residents of Haines, Alaska.
THE CHILKAT BALD EAGLE PRESERVE
A five mile long warm water reservoir, a unique geological feature along parts of the Chilkat River, provides ice-free conditions well into the winter months. Recognizing that the ecological integrity of this area was based on its abundant wild salmon runs, in 1982 the Alaska State Legislature created the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The Preserve, designated as a state “Critical Habitat,” covers 48,000 acres of river bottomland on the Chilkat, Kleheni, and Tsirku Rivers. It hosts the world’s largest annual gathering of Bald Eagles. Three to four thousand eagles migrate from as far away as Washington State to feast on these late runs of wild Pacific salmon.
The Preserve should, in theory, be the most protected wild salmon habitat in Alaska. In addition to protecting Chilkat Bald Eagles, the Preserve was also “established to protect and sustain the natural salmon spawning and rearing areas . . . within the preserve in perpetuity.” The Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is the agency charged with overall Preserve management. The authority for managing salmon and salmon habitat inside the Preserve rests with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G).
According to the Management Plan adopted for the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in 2002, “management [is] to focus on the protection of bald eagles and their associated habitat and the spawning and rearing areas of the anadromous streams that provided the basis for the existence of the extensive bald eagle population.” Further, all public uses must be consistent with the primary purpose of the Preserve or they are not allowed.
CONSERVATION IMPACTS BY COMMERCIAL JET BOAT TOURS
Unfortunately, Alaska allows commercial jet boating in the Preserve. The policy started small but has grown. In summer, five 32 foot tour boats, each with twin 150 horsepower engines, make multiple daily trips so tourists can “experience” this national treasure. The boats are required by permit to maintain slow, “no wake” speeds through the salmon habitat portions of the Preserve, but these restrictions have not been enforced.
In 2002, ADF&G funded two small studies to determine the impacts of large jet boats on Chilkat salmon habitat. These studies suggested there was reason to be concerned about the large wakes these boats generated and boats passing over the top of occupied salmon habitat – including spawning salmon, eggs in gravel, hatching eggs, and outmigrating smolts.
In 2005, the state reversed years of precautionary management and began allowing commercial jet boats entry into high-value wild salmon spawning and rearing habitat. The ADF&G commissioner issued a short memo which stated: “While we remain concerned that the large jet boats used by [the commercial jet boat operator] could have a long-term impact on salmon eggs, rearing juvenile salmon, and salmon spawning and rearing habitat in the area, especially during periods of low water, we do not believe sufficient scientific evidence exists to disallow the requested permitted use.”
There is an additional concern that large wakes made by commercial jet boats are degrading habitat by eroding streambanks. Other Chilkat River studies have documented that boat wake erosion has already undermined streambank stability in some areas.
Beginning in 2005, a broad-based coalition of conservation and fishing interests, as well as a former governor, a Tlingit elder, and past ADF&G and DNR commissioners questioned state management of this national treasure which allows degradation of salmon habitat. To date, state agencies have been unresponsive to concerns expressed by this coalition of stakeholders.
PALMER MINE PROJECT
Constantine Metal Resources, a Vancouver, B.C. junior mining company, is exploring the Palmer Project sulfide deposit, an almost 16,000 acre property located south of the Haines Highway on the Chilkat River near the historic Porcupine placer gold mining camp. Sulfide deposits are associated with acid mine drainage. The ore is in the same geological belt as the Greens Creek Mine which has leached heavy metals into salmon habitat near Juneau. If developed, the copper-zinc-gold-silver mine along the headwaters of the Chilkat watershed would pose a very serious threat to fishery resources downstream, and to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
In February 2013, Constantine announced an exploration partnership with Dowa Metals and Mining Co. of Japan. Dowa will provide a minimum of $3,000,000 annually of exploration funding on the Palmer property over the next four years.
In August 2013, Constantine announced positive drill results from the exploration to date.
HAINES HIGHWAY PROJECT
The Alaska Department of Transportation is proposing to upgrade a section of the Haines Highway in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. This project is currently under environmental assessment, with an expectation of a decision in fall 2013. Rivers Without Borders is concerned that the project will adversely impact the Preserve, including areas designated as Critical Habitat. Some of the cottonwood roosting trees that provide optimal eagle habitat to over 90% of the resident eagle population would be cut down in order to straighten curves and widen shoulders on the highway. Roosting trees provide the eagles easy access to their salmon food source, which helps them conserve energy and is essential to their survival. The proposed changes in the width of the highway will also cause the alteration of a number of salmon streams, and destruction of over 20 acres of salmon habitat. Rivers Without Borders has submitted public comments recommending that an Environmental Impact Statement be required for this project because of the global significance of the Preserve, and the potential adverse impact this project could have on the salmon habitat at the heart of the Preserve.