Saving Coni Island

South of the Brooks Range in northern Alaska there still exists intact ecosystems that remain largely unchanged except by forces of nature.  This is one of the largest public land wild areas left in the U.S.  Hunting and fishing here is the dream of many sportsmen and women, but to the people in remote communities of this region it is their subsistence use area as it always has been. 

The subsistence use and sport hunting and fishing opportunities are on the brink of being drastically altered by the construction of an industrial access road stretching well over 200 miles west from the Dalton Highway to spur the development of mining opportunities in the Ambler Mining District.  Comments on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) draft Ambler Road Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as well as a National Park Service (NPS) Economic and Environmental Assessment (EEA) to decide which route across their managed land, are requested through October 29, 2019.

Attached here are the comments submitted on behalf of the Alaska Chapter of BHA on the BLM's Ambler Road EIS, urging land managers to abandon construction of the road.  Please consider joining us in submitting a comment of your own on the BLM's EIS here or the NPS Economic and Environmental Assessment (EEA) here

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This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Backcountry Journal.

By Barry Whitehill

Our Kobuk River 10-day fishing trip for inconnu, “coni” as many Alaska natives call them, started with a giant ride. The “roller coaster” began at an air strip north of the Arctic Circle in the form of a small plane ferrying us to the remote community of Bettles. From there we put our trust in a 60-year-old de Havilland Beaver to fly us much farther, landing on the remote Lake Minakokosa in the Brooks Range. During the flights there were plenty of bounces to help build our suspense.


This remote trip was not unlike enjoying the experiences at a wonderful amusement park. A kaleidoscope of colors, fantastic fun, a cornucopia of smells, and a smidge of terror. The last half of August is an ideal time to experience this landscape. We watched leaves progress to bright fall colors in the short Arctic fall, literally before our eyes. It was dark enough in the evenings to have northern lights entertain us with dances overhead. Best of all, several species of fish were racing to spawn before winter set in. Our “carnival game” challenges evolved each day: first fish, biggest fish, quickest catch of the day, etc.


What drew our group to the Kobuk River were the inconnu, also known as sheefish or “the tarpon of the north.” Coni fit that tarpon description in both looks and size. They are huge anadromous Arctic whitefish, running from the brackish waters to fresh water to spawn, then back again. Unlike salmon, they don’t die after spawning but continue to grow. Grow they do; some to over four feet in length and well into the 40-pound range.


Starting our adventure at Lake Minakokosa was a perfect tune-up for catching inconnu. At the lake, sizable northern pike or lake trout offered themselves on most casts. From there we floated down Beaver Creek, where grayling and chum salmon replaced the pike and trout. Each day seemed to highlight a different fish species. Coni didn’t steal the spotlight until we were well down the Kobuk River from where Beaver Creek joins it.


Even in Alaska, any hot fishing area requires some sharing of the river. The Kobuk River was no different. However, the other fishermen we shared the river with only appeared at dusk. Fortunately, these furry fishers were a well-fed population of brown bears.


The bears added to the brilliant sights and pungent smell of our experience. Their leftover feasts of partially chewed chum salmon, muddy tracks, and colorful scat covered virtually every camping spot. It was apparent though, that they are a hunted population by the wide berth they kept from us whenever we saw each other. Still, a healthy dose of situational awareness was required when sharing the river with the bears.


That situational awareness seems to be something that has been greatly diminished since the absence of brown bears from the majority of the backcountry areas left in our country. Only after living in Alaska, with annual pilgrimages to hunt elk in Idaho where brown bears are absent, did I start to notice the differences in mindset between the two scenarios. For anyone who has enjoyed reading The Journals of Lewis and Clark, a remote trip to Alaska is necessary to better understand the “feel” of navigating in a time and place where you have a much higher likelihood of getting thumped.


Sadly, our idyllic Alaskan fishing adventure is threatened. An industrial road is being proposed that would slither over 200 miles along the base of the Brooks Range, from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler Mining District. “Build it and they will come,” has always followed every inroad into public roadless areas with radiating disarray. This not only applies to further development but also to invasive species, decreased water quality, a slew of potential pollutants and an overall diminished backcountry experience for a huge swath of one of our nation’s last remaining large roadless tracts. Included in the road’s path will be the need to span the Kobuk River somewhere along the 110 miles of formal Wild River designation under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. It seems nothing is sacred on public lands anymore.


The Ambler Access Industrial Road Draft EIS is currently up for public comment.  Go figure. Just when most Alaskans are running hard, trying to fit as much as possible in before the snow flies and least likely to spend time at a computer getting draft EIS comments in. Fortunately, this is a national treasure, where a national voice can be raised..


Our collective voice as Backcountry Hunters & Anglers can be a positive voice for coni, bears and wild rivers in the fight to keep our last and most pristine areas that can still be hunted and fished. Even if your plans don’t include an immediate trip to this remote area, knowing that there is a wild Kobuk River that still exists as it has throughout time should be worthy of submitting your comments. Without your comments, the dream of having a pristine “Coni Island” experience could evaporate forever.

 

Barry Whitehill lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. He is a Life and Legacy member who joined Backcountry Hunters and Anglers in 2005.

About Barry Whitehill