At the top of the Alaskan panhandle, the Bering River flows into the Gulf of Alaska. Located immediately east of the Copper River and the Copper River Critical Habitat Area, the Bering River’s alluvial fan combines with the Copper’s to create a 75-mile-wide, complex, coastal wetland system. This vast ecosystem provides incredibly important habitat for migrating birds, bears, moose, salmon, steelhead, eulachon, furbearers, and other species valued by Alaskan residents and visitors. Each spring, an estimated 12 million shorebirds pass through the area, and it provides nesting habitat for around 10% of the world’s population of trumpeter swans.
The wild salmon runs of the Bering and Copper rivers are especially noteworthy. The two rivers help support approximately 500 commercial gillnet operations and several hundred purse seine operations. The 10-year average of commercial harvest, from 2010-2019, for the region was 1.66 million fish valued at around $24 million. The annual salmon runs are also widely utilized by Alaskans participating in sport, subsistence, and personal use fisheries.
Near the head of the Bering River are the Bering River Coalfields, an area that totals 73,000 acres. In the early 1900s, this area was protected after the coalfields were included in an expansion of the Chugach National Forest. That protection dissolved after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and the land selection of the Bering coalfields by the Chugach Alaska Corporation. However, in 2016 the Chugach Alaska Corporation entered into a carbon-offset agreement that protected the 62,000 acres of the coalfields that they owned. The rights to the remaining 11,920 acres are held by the Korean Alaska Development Corporation (KADCO), which, if developed, could produce up to 60 million tons of coal. The development of the area and extraction of the coal deposits could have serious negative impacts on the habitat of the Bering-Copper River watersheds and hurt Alaskans opportunities to harvest wild game and fish to fill their freezers.
Recently, the Alaska Region of the U.S. Forest Service submitted a proposal for competitive funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to acquire the coal rights held by KADCO. If the proposal is approved, this acquisition would conserve the remaining 11,920 acres of the Bering River coalfields. Conservation of the coalfields will help ensure the health of the Bering River watershed, the species that rely on it, and the Alaskans that fill their freezers with moose, salmon, eulachon, and bear. Leaving the coalfields undeveloped will also leave an estimated 100-185 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in the ground.
The Alaska BHA board fully supports this acquisition and has sent our letter of support to the U.S. Forest Service to supplement their proposal. We are hopeful that this acquisition will be successful as we believe it is in line with the goals of the LWCF and will serve in the interests of hunters and anglers to see this area conserved. We will keep our Alaska members updated on the status of this proposal as it goes forward.