About

Tim Sohn is a freelance journalist based in New York and a Correspondent for Outside Magazine.

Stories

"All Will Be Revealed. Maybe," a review essay of Carl Hoffman's Savage Harvest, about the Michael Rockefeller mystery, incorporating my own reporting on the story.

"Powder for the Purists," on snowcat-assisted backcountry skiing in the southern Cascades at Oregon's Mt. Bailey.

"What a Catch," a look at the family of salmon fishermen bringing their products to Brooklyn and Portland via an innovative CSA-style distribution model.

"Operation Hollywood," a behind-the-scenes look at action film Act of Valor and the active-duty Navy SEALs who star in it.

"The Novelist," an interview with octogenarian writer James Salter, unrivaled prose stylist and all around legend, in Outside Magazine

"Artists in the Convent," a New York Times piece about a struggling Brooklyn parish that's opened its doors to artists.

"Shattered Idyll," in which I visited a soon-to-be-demolished ghost town on the Connecticut coast. Read it in the New York Observer or on Yahoo News.

"Graveyard Shift," a look at midwestern skiing at Paoli Peaks, Indiana, Skiing Magazine; read it here.

"The Life and Death of Shane McConkey," Outside Magazine; read it here.

"Gold Fish," a feature on the salmon fishermen of Bristol Bay and their fight against the proposed Pebble Mine, Outside; read it here.

"Everyman's Everest", a first-person account of my climb of Aconcagua (22,834 feet), Men's Journal; read it here.

 

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Friday
Feb282014

EPA Announces Move to Block Pebble Mine

Anti-Pebble flag at Peter Pan cannery, Dillingham, AK, 2009Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announced Friday that the Agency is taking the first step towards exercising its powers under the Clean Water Act to block development of the controversial Pebble Mine, a massive copper and gold deposit located in Alaska’s renowned Bristol Bay region. The move culminates more than three years of study by the Agency and potentially cuts off development of the mine before the Pebble Limited Partnership, the consortium of mining companies behind the project, has even applied for permits.

And while McCarthy stressed that the announcement merely blocked permitting temporarily and initiated a four-step process that might lead to permanent protection of Bristol Bay, the news looked like a substantial victory for the coalition of fishermen, environmentalists, and local Native groups who have been arguing for years that the location of the deposit near the headwaters of major river systems meant that it could not be mined without unacceptably endangering the legendary Bristol Bay salmon run. It’s become the most politically-charged resource debate in Alaska, pitting a mine worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars against a salmon run that forms the backbone of a the region’s pristine ecosystem and supports its robust commercial and sport fishing economy, as well as the salmon-based culture of the tribes who have lived in the area for millennia.

“Today, EPA is taking a significant step forward in our efforts to insure that he world’s most productive salmon fishery is safe from the risks that it faces from what could be one of the largest mines on earth,” McCarthy told reporters in a conference call Friday, explaining that Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act gives the agency the ability to act pre-emptively by exercising its “veto authority” over permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. “This 404(c) process is not something—and I want to stress this—that the agency does very often,” McCarthy said, “but the Bristol Bay fishery is an extraordinary resource, and it’s worthy of out-of-the-ordinary agency actions to protect it.”

It is, indeed, a rare invocation of then EPA’s authority to restrict or outright prohibit any discharge of dredge or fill that might have “unacceptable adverse effects” on water supplies, wildlife, fisheries, or recreational areas. Such a process has been initiated just 29 times previously, and it has run to completion and resulted in restrictions just 13 times. Only once has the Agency interceded before permits have been filed, as it is contemplating with Pebble.

But in this case, the EPA feels it has done its homework, having spent more than three years acquainting itself with Bristol Bay. The agency’s involvement in the Pebble issue started in 2010 when, at the request of local tribes and stakeholder groups, it initiated a comprehensive study of the potential effects of large-scale mining on the Bristol Bay watershed. That process took more than three years of gathering data, and after numerous public meetings, more than a million online comments, and two rounds of scientific peer review, the final draft of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was released in January.

And though controversial with pro-development Alaskans and conservative politicians who saw it as an egregious federal intrusion on Alaskan sovereignty, its conclusions were clear. “EPA has concluded that large scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant near and long-term risks to salmon, wildlife, and Native Alaskan cultures,” Dennis McClerran, Regional Administrator for EPA’s Region 10, which covers Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, said at the time. And though the agency insisted that no determination had been made on whether to block Pebble’s permitting, most of those involved in the Pebble debate have been waiting expectantly since January for the other shoe to drop. On Friday, it did.

The Pebble Partnership and majority owner Northern Dynasty Minerals, of Canada, in response reiterated its earlier criticism of EPA intercession and called the initiation of this process “premature and unprecedented” in a release issued Friday afternoon. “We remain confident in our project and our position,” said Pebble CEO Tom Collier in the statement. “We will continue to state our case with the EPA as we work through their process. The EPA’s actions today are an unprecedented federal action and reflect a major overreach onto an asset of the State of Alaska.” (The market was less optimistic: by day’s end Friday, Northern Dynasty’s stock had fallen by nearly a third, from $1.47 at opening to just a dollar a share. It has spent this week trading in the 80 to 95 cent range. As a comparison, at this time last year it was trading at $3.40 per share.)

McCarthy anticipated the “overreach” criticism by noting in her announcement that this decision was within EPA’s legal authority to make and that it was unique and in no way meant to set a precedent. The Pebble folks weren’t the only ones to disagree with her. “Today’s egregious action by the EPA goes beyond federal overreach,” read a statement from Sharon Leighow, Press Secretary for Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell. “The EPA has not only cut off public input and process, but ahs also unilaterally decided that they, not Alaskans, now what’s best for our future.”

One thing she seems to be mistaken on: there definitely will be ample opportunity for more public input as the EPA works through the four-part 404(c) process, which will involve public comment periods, public hearings, and consultations with the affected parties. “On average,” McClerran told reporters on Friday’s call, “the 404c process from beginning to end has taken approximately a year.”

So while those who have been fighting Pebble will have to wait a little longer to see whether the EPA’s temporary freeze on mining in Bristol Bay becomes permanent, they were clearly of the opinion that this announcement was a nail—if not the final one—in Pebble’s coffin. “This puts EPA’s eyes on the prize,” said Joel Reynolds of the NRDC, which has been a vocal opponent of the mine. “The science is sound, EPA’s legal authority is clear, and the people of Bristol Bay have demanded protection.”

Indeed, it’s hard to see the EPA backing down at this point, especially with support from the Obama Administration. “The White House strongly supports that decision by the EPA,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday, according to the Washington Post. “The step is consistent with the president’s commitment to protect pristine American places for future generations.”

In response to the final question at the end of the conference call with reporters, McCarthy made a case for the Agency’s exceptional action. “In rare times, you see something that is an extraordinary confluence of issues and factors and the law tells us we should have cognizance of that,” she said. “Alaskans asked us to pay attention, and this is really the EPA paying attention to an extraordinary situation.”

Friday
Feb282014

EPA Moves to block Pebble Mine

(The EPA announced today that it was intitiating a process to determine whether to invoke its "veto" power under the Clean Water Act in blocking Alaska's controversial Pebble Mine. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy hosted a very interesting conference call for reporters earlier, and I'll be writing a summary of that, but for now, I wanted to post the EPA's release in full. This is a huge day for anyone who has an interest in the debate over the Pebble Mine and the future of Bristol Bay.)

EPA moves to protect Bristol Bay fishery from Pebble Mine

Release Date: 02/28/2014

Agency action begins process to prevent damage to world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery

(Washington, D.C.—Feb. 28, 2014) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is initiating a process under the Clean Water Act to identify appropriate options to protect the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska from the potentially destructive impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine. The Pebble Mine has the potential to be one of the largest open pit copper mines ever developed and could threaten a salmon resource rare in its quality and productivity. During this process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot approve a permit for the mine.

This action, requested by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, reflects the unique nature of the Bristol Bay watershed as one of the world’s last prolific wild salmon resources and the threat posed by the Pebble deposit, a mine unprecedented in scope and scale. It does not reflect an EPA policy change in mine permitting.

"Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "It’s why EPA is taking this step forward in our effort to ensure protection for the world’s most productive salmon fishery from the risks it faces from what could be one of the largest open pit mines on earth. This process is not something the Agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource."

The EPA is basing its action on available information, including data collected as a part of the agency’s Bristol Bay ecological risk assessment and mine plans submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Today, Dennis McLerran, EPA Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10, sent letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Alaska, and the Pebble Partnership initiating action under EPA’s Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authorities.

"Bristol Bay is an extraordinary natural resource, home to some of the most abundant salmon producing rivers in the world. The area provides millions of dollars in jobs and food resources for Alaska Native Villages and commercial fishermen," McLerran said. "The science EPA reviewed paints a clear picture: Large-scale copper mining of the Pebble deposit would likely result in significant and irreversible harm to the salmon and the people and industries that rely on them."

Today’s action follows the January 2014 release of EPA’s "Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska," a study that documents the significant ecological resources of the region and the potentially destructive impacts to salmon and other fish from potential large-scale copper mining of the Pebble Deposit. The assessment indicates that the proposed Pebble Mine would likely cause irreversible destruction of streams that support salmon and other important fish species, as well as extensive areas of wetlands, ponds and lakes.

In 2010, several Bristol Bay Alaska Native tribes requested that EPA take action under Clean Water Act Section 404(c) to protect the Bristol Bay watershed and salmon resources from development of the proposed Pebble Mine, a venture backed by Northern Dynasty Minerals. The Bristol Bay watershed is home to 31 Alaska Native Villages. Residents of the area depend on salmon as a major food resource and for their economic livelihood, with nearly all residents participating in subsistence fishing.

Bristol Bay produces nearly 50 percent of the world’s wild sockeye salmon with runs averaging 37.5 million fish each year. The salmon runs are highly productive due in large part to the exceptional water quality in streams and wetlands, which provide valuable salmon habitat.

The Bristol Bay ecosystem generates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity and provides employment for over 14,000 full and part-time workers. The region supports all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America: sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum, and pink. In addition, it is home to more than 20 other fish species, 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial mammal species, including bears, moose, and caribou.

Based on information provided by The Pebble Partnership and Northern Dynasty Minerals, mining the Pebble deposit may involve excavation of a pit up to one mile deep and over 2.5 miles wide -- the largest open pit ever constructed in North America. Disposal of mining waste may require construction of three or more massive earthen tailings dams as high as 650 feet. The Pebble deposit is located at the headwaters of Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, which produce about half of the sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay.

The objective of the Clean Water Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. The Act emphasizes protecting uses of the nation’s waterways, including fishing.

The Clean Water Act generally requires a permit under Section 404 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before any person places dredge or fill material into wetlands, lakes and streams. Mining operations typically involve such activities and must obtain Clean Water Act Section 404 permits. Section 404 directs EPA to develop the environmental criteria the Army Corps uses to make permit decisions. It also authorizes EPA to prohibit or restrict fill activities if EPA determines such actions would have unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas.

The steps in the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) review process are:

  • Step 1 – Consultation period with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and owners of the site, initiated today.
  • Step 2 – Publication of Proposed Determination, including proposed prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit, in Federal Register for public comment and one or more public hearings.
  • Step 3 – Review of public comments and development of Recommended Determination by EPA Regional Administrator to Assistant Administrator for Water at EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC.
  • Step 4 – Second consultation period with the Army Corps and site owners and development of Final Determination by Assistant Administrator for Water, including any final prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit.

Based on input EPA receives during any one of these steps, the agency could decide that further review under Section 404(c) is not necessary.

Now that the 404(c) process has been initiated, the Army Corps cannot issue a permit for fill in wetlands or streams associated with mining the Pebble deposit until EPA completes the 404(c) review process.

EPA has received over 850,000 requests from citizens, tribes, Alaska Native corporations, commercial and sport fisherman, jewelry companies, seafood processors, restaurant owners, chefs, conservation organizations, members of the faith community, sport recreation business owners, elected officials and others asking EPA to take action to protect Bristol Bay.

For information on the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) visit: http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/cwa/dredgdis/upload/404c.pdf (PDF, 2 pp, 600K)

For information on the EPA Bristol Bay Assessment, visit: http://www2.epa.gov/bristolbay

Wednesday
Jan292014

Paperback Row: Jame's Salter's "All That Is"

For those who missed it when it first came out, All That Is, the latest novel from legendary writer and all around badass James Salter, just came out in paperback. For the curious, I reviewed it for GQ.com last year:

"There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real."

So reads the epigraph of James Salter's stunning new novel All That Is. For Salter, now 87, writing is a sacred act, and it is only fitting that he begins his latest novel, the capstone of his half-century-long career, by paying homage to it. "Life passes into pages," he's written elsewhere, "if it passes into anything."

And what a life, and what pages. Salter is the man many of us wish we could be—West Point grad, fighter pilot, skier, traveler, raconteur, and, from his 1957 debut novel, The Hunters, which was based on his Korean War experience flying combat missions over the Yalu, to his best books—Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime—one of the finest prose stylists and most enviable American writers of the last half century.

Read the rest of that review here.

And for those looking to go a little deeper into the man behind the myth, here's a Q&A I did for Outside after sitting down to a memorable lunch with the great man a couple years ago. The intro to my first (unpublished) draft of that piece ended this bit of hyperbole:

After lunch, I thought of a line of Salter’s. In his essay “The Skiing Life,” he describes a harrowing but invigorating run down the fabled Hahnenkamm downhill course at Kitzbuhel, following Austrian champion Toni Sailer, who swept the three Alpine events in the 1956 Olympics. Afterward, he is asked how it went. “It will be true one day even if it isn’t now. ‘The greatest run of my life,’ I say and go upstairs and back to bed.”  I didn’t go back to bed, but it was—or will be—the greatest lunch of my life.

But I've had many lunches since, and that sentiment still holds up.

Tuesday
Jan212014

Pebble Update -- Begich Jumps Ship: Pebble is “wrong mine, wrong place, too big”

Oxbows in the tundra, aerial view near proposed Pebble site (2010).

Until this week, Alaska's three-person Congressional delegation had presented a mostly united front on the controversial Pebble Mine, the massive and as yet un-mined copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit in Southwest Alaska, near the headwaters of the rivers that feed the famed Bristol Bay salmon run.

Their position: supportive of the mining companies’ right to explore the deposit and leery of any effort to quash the mine’s development preemptively, particularly if it came from outside the state’s borders. Pebble, they held, was an Alaskan resource on state-owned lands, and the decision ought to be made by Alaskans. Which is why they took offense to the EPA’s decision in 2011 to begin a study of the potential impacts of large-scale mining on the Bristol Bay watershed.

Last week, the EPA released the final draft of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, concluding that a large-scale mine in Bristol Bay would represent an unacceptable risk to the region’s salmon-based ecosystem. It was that report, widely seen as the first step towards a potential action to block the mine, that seems to have goaded Sen. Mark Begich into coming out against the mine.

In an interview over the weekend with the Anchorage Daily News, Sen. Begich said of Pebble:

"Wrong mine, wrong place, too big," Begich said in an interview. "Too many potential long-term impacts to a fishery that is pretty critical to that area but also to Alaska, to world markets."

The “wrong mine, wrong place” formulation is a nifty one, allowing Begich to toe a line necessary for any Alaskan politician opposing Pebble: pro-mining in general, just opposed to this mine in particular. For those who have been following this issue for a while, there were clear, and likely intentional, echoes in Begich’s statement, one of which The Daily News picked up on:

Begich's language almost mirrors former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' wording back in 2008 when asked about Pebble at a campaign stop in Kodiak. "I am not opposed to mining, but it is the wrong mine for the wrong place," Stevens said.

On reading Begich’s words, I thought immediately of Stevens, but also of another Alaskan politician, Rick Halford, former President of the Alaska State Senate and now a vehement opponent of the mine. I can’t be sure that he originated it, but he has long used an eloquent variation of that mantra. Here’s what Halford said in June 2008 at the Pacific Fisheries Legislative Task Force meeting in Dillingham, as I reported in Outside Magazine:

Rick Halford, a former Alaska state senator who's generally pro-extraction but opposes the Pebble mine, summed it up at the Dillingham meeting. "Mining is an important part of Alaska's heritage," he said. "But this particular prospect, in this particular location, is a disaster for all time."

Coming on the heals of the EPA’s report, it was hard not to see Begich’s statements as a tacit endorsement of EPA action. According to the Daily News, that’s not the case:

Begich said he wasn't calling for EPA to veto the mine. Alaskans have been pushing him for years to take a stand, and with the study finally complete, he said it was time. His office has received about 2,800 communications from Alaskans against Pebble and about 280 in support of it, he said.

Naturally, the Pebble Partnership was not pleased and issued its own statement, in which they tried to portray Sen. Begich as in the pocket of a carpet-bagging, overreaching EPA. “We also are stunned that an Alaskan Senator supports the EPA—a federal agency acting unilaterally—to make decisions about future development on state land in Alaska,” it reads. The Senator’s statement, in their eyes, aids those who would seek to prevent them from a fair hearing via the state and federal permitting process. “There is no environmental harm whatsoever that will be caused by allowing Pebble into that [permitting] process.”

This has been Pebble’s response to criticism for years: wait until we have a mine plan, and then give it a fair shot in the permitting process. And while opponents say that the permitting process is rigged in the mining companies’ favor, and Begich grew tired of waiting for them to release a detailed plan, the two other members of Alaska's Congressional delegation seem to agree, at least in part, with Pebble.

As Murkowski told the Daily News, “I remain convinced that a preemptive veto of a mine or any other project, which the agency claims it can do under the Clean Water Act, would set a terrible precedent for development in our state and across the nation.”

Representative Don Young was a little more direct in his defense of states’ rights. “For the EPA to come into Alaska and lay the groundwork to preemptively oppose a project located entirely on state lands, and subject tot rigorous state permitting,” Young said in a press release, “is a serious threat to not only Alaska’s sovereignty, but the rights of states nationwide.”

But I wonder if, behind Rep. Young’s vehemence and Pebble’s outrage, there might be a hint of desperation. In September of last year, Pebble lost its major backer when Anglo American pulled out of the project, and in December, Rio Tinto, another global mining giant, said it was re-evaluating its stake in Pebble. For Begich, it seems the EPA report was the last straw. And now that he’s jumped ship, will others follow?

(Read more about the EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed assessment below or in my piece on the Huffington Post.)

Thursday
Jan162014

EPA's final report: Pebble Mine bad for salmon

Spawning run temporarily interrupted, with the Bristol Bay village of Nondalton in the background (2010).

I've got a piece up on the Huffington Post today summarizing the release of the EPA's final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment document on Wednesday. Read it below, or click through to their site.

After nearly three years of study, the EPA released the final draft of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment this week, coming to conclusions in line with previous drafts: Large scale mining development in Southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed poses a substantial risk to the region's ecosystem and its legendary salmon run.

The assessment compiled data relevant to evaluating the potential risks posed by several hypothetical large-scale mining scenarios. Of course, there was never any doubt about which hypothetical mine the report was aimed at: the Pebble Mine.

Pebble, for those unfamiliar, is a massive copper and gold deposit worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars that sits at the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay's primary river systems. Those river systems, in turn, support the world's largest run of sockeye salmon and a robust fishing economy that contributes $480 million annually and upwards of 14,000 full- and part-time jobs. It has also been the backbone of the region's subsistence-based Native culture for thousands of years. It's not surprising that many Bristol Bay stakeholders aren't thrilled by the prospect of a massive open pit mine and its attendant tailings dams, road corridors and other development.

All of which helps explains why the project has become such a lightning rod -- it's the most controversial resource issue in Alaska and has attracted attention and opposition from well beyond the state. (For one example: see Robert Redford's take here). This study was initiated by a request from a group of Native tribes from the region, who approached the EPA in 2010 to ask that they block the mine's development by invoking section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Now, over three years later, after gathering data, holding public meetings, receiving over a million comments, and putting the study through two rounds of peer review by panel of independent scientists, the EPA has arrived at this final document.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran had no answer for questions as to what sort of regulatory action the study might precipitate, or on what timeline, but on the findings of the assessment, he didn't mince words: "EPA has concluded that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant near and long-term risks to salmon, wildlife and native Alaskan cultures."

Jeff Frithsen, a senior scientist and special projects manager at the EPA's office of research and development in D.C, summarized the litany of potential effects -- ecological, economic, cultural -- resulting from each of the three hypothetical mine scenarios outlined in the study. In each case, he cataloged the risks posed both from a mine's routine operations and from potentially more catastrophic accidents or failures. The potential effects of even standard mining operations, as outlined by Frithsen, included the loss of dozens of miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands, as well as unforeseeable impacts on the 64 rivers and streams that the mine's transportation corridor would cross. (I encourage you to download the executive summary here for all the details).

Those who have been fighting against the mine were quick to endorse the study's findings. "We are pleased that the EPA has come to the conclusion that large scale mine development in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve would endanger and put at risk the most valuable fishery in the world," said Anders Gustafson, Executive Director of the Renewable Resources Coalition, one of the primary groups fighting Pebble, adding that the study contained "exactly the kind of data" that will be needed in evaluating the project and others like it.

Of course, not everyone saw it that way. Northern Dynasty, the Canadian mining company developing Pebble, quickly issued its own press release titled, subtly, "Northern Dynasty Acknowledges Completion of EPA's Flawed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment." "Publication of the final watershed assessment is really the final chapter in a very sad story," said Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen in the release. "We believe the EPA set out to do a flawed analysis of the Pebble Project, and they certainly succeeded with both their first and second drafts of the BBWA."

John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, the Alaska-based face of Pebble's development, concurred with Thiessen. "We have maintained all along that the Bristol Bay watershed assessment process has been rushed and thus has resulted in two very flawed documents," Shively said in a release, saying that the EPA did not commit enough time or resources to do a thorough job, and he criticized the hypothetical mine scenarios. "It must be remembered that the report does not assess the effects of the Pebble Project as we have not finalized nor submitted a project for regulatory evaluation." In Shively's eyes, without a mine plan from Pebble, the EPA is evaluating a fiction.

The mine's opponents dismissed such critiques. "If you don't like the outcome of the review, you are going to say it's bad data," Bristol Bay Native Corporation President Jason Metrokin told local TV station KTVA, while praising the process.

Flawed or not, the assessment is now final, which means people on both sides of the Pebble debate have the same question: What now? It's clear where this report comes down on the mine -- a bad thing -- but there's no inkling of whether those conclusions will lead to policy action and, if so, on what sort of a timeline.

The EPA has gone to great lengths to separate this phase -- the compilation and examination of the underlying scientific, economic and historical data --f rom any discussion of policy. In fact, page one of the report's executive summary says as much: "As a scientific assessment, it does not discuss or recommend policy, legal or regulatory decisions, nor does it outline or analyze options for future decisions." The EPA's position is, effectively: Now that we've gathered the information, we can begin thinking about what to do with it and how to respond to the tribes' request for regulatory action.

As it turns out, the situation may not be as urgent as it once seemed. After years of insisting that they were nearly ready to file for their mining permits -- "by the end of the year" was an oft-heard refrain -- the path forward for Pebble looks somewhat murkier. In September, Northern Dynasty's partner in the project, mini-giant Anglo-American, walked away from its 50 percent stake, taking a $300 million loss for its efforts and citing a need to streamline its mine development pipeline by focusing on lower risk mines with a higher probability of near-term payout. A month later, layoffs at Pebble began. And in December, global mining company Rio Tinto announced that it was reevaluating its 19 percent stake in Northern Dynasty, which represents its de facto investment in Pebble, with a possible eye on divesting.

All that being said, this story is far from over. Northern Dynasty has vowed to press forward with the mine's development, likely with a new partner to replace Anglo American. "The report does not change our plans," Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, told me in an email. "Our immediate focus remains on working with Northern Dynasty in securing a partner to help advance the project."

Or, as a fisherman friend of mine commented after I posted a link to the EPA report, "Well, the deposit isn't going anywhere, so we'll see where it goes from here!"

Thursday
Jan092014

On Newsstands: Mt. Bailey in Skiing Mag

Happy New Year! Just a quick update to say that my report on a fantastic cat-skiing trip I took to Mt. Bailey, in southern Oregon, last March, is out in the current issue of Skiing Magazine. Thanks to Ross, Oz, and everyone else at Cat Ski Mt. Bailey for the hospitality! I'll post a link once it's online, but here's the short version: out of the way, but well worth the trip.

Monday
Nov112013

When the Road Ends, Keep Pedaling: The Road from Karakol

Fitz Cahall's inspiring film "35", about one rock-climber's unique 35th birthday challenge, won the Best Short Documentary award at the Banff Mountain Film Festival this past week, which got me thinking about another of his short climbing films, The Road from Karakol, which I had a chance to see earlier this fall.

I had only a vague idea of what to expect when I showed up at the Patagonia store in New York's Meatpacking District one night last month for a screening of The Road from Karakol. I knew it was a short film -- 25 minutes -- by Fitz Cahall, a climber and multimedia writer, director, and producer perhaps best known for his Dirtbag Diaries series. I knew it starred world-class alpinist Kyle Dempster, who has won climbing's highest honor, the Piolet d'Or, and who had shot the footage himself during a solo biking and climbing trip. I knew the trip was somewhere in Central Asia, but I did not know -- and this is a little embarrassing -- where Karakol is.

I also didn't know this charming film's rather charming backstory: Dempster basically showed up on Cahall's doorstep with a hard drive full of footage. Cahall dug into it and realized, quickly, that he had something worth pursuing, both in the journey itself and in Dempster's magnetic, occasionally off-kilter camera presence.

It turns out Karakol is in Kyrgyzstan, and Dempster headed there in 2011 with the goal of biking across the country via abandoned Soviet-era backroads, climbing as many Kyrgyz peaks as he could along the way. He had never bike-toured before, didn't know the language, and encountered roads that, when they even existed, were often not rideable. As the film goes on, things get occasionally hairy, as they inevitably will on any journey worth calling an adventure and Dempster becomes increasingly reliant on the camera as his only friend, a place to offload his doubts and fears. "The camera became kind of like my 'Wilson'," he said after the screening, alluding to Tom Hanks's volleyball-friend in the movie Cast Away. "You need something to talk to..."

The overall tone, which I'd describe as goofball bro meets iron-willed hardass, is set with the opening scene: Dempster naked by the side of a raging river, explaining to the camera that he needs to swim across in order to continue on his quixotic way. It is funny -- nearly a "Jackass" stunt -- but the stakes are real: he's hundreds of miles from anything, alone, with only the possessions on a bike. He is honest through the entire film -- there is no false bravado to mask his hesitancy and reluctance, though there is some nervous laughter.

The naked river crossing is actually deep into his journey and from that comical opening, the film takes us back to the start, on the paved and (relatively) plush roads leading out of Karakol and towards the mountains. You roll along with Dempster, through all manner of obstacles, and by the time you're back on that riverbank with him, you will have become enamored of this funny little story and the (naked) man behind it, as well as more apprised of the situation's seriousness. Dempster had basically backed himself into a corner, with river crossings behind him just as treacherous as the one in front of him, and couldn't see any option but to swim it. He was not happy about it, and nervous enough to record what amounts to a video last will and testament, a goodbye to family back home.

The voiceover can be a little overcooked -- "adventure exists at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous" -- but in the end it's the kind of film, I wrote in a note to myself, that makes you want to test yourself, to go out there, and to be goofy and have fun while doing it. Which is to say: it accomplishes the goal of any good adventure tale and does so while keeping you entertained, mostly at Dempster's expense. Not to ruin the ending, but he does climb some peaks along the way, and eventually makes it back to civilization. It's a sweet little ode to the enduring value of quixotic characters like Dempster, one man pointing his compass at a goal on the horizon and continuing towards it unwaveringly.

As the film's closing credits rolled, alongside outtakes of some of the trip's more vodka-soaked moments (and there were many -- nearly everyone Kyrgyz man he met, including the cops, plied him with booze), Dempster bounded to the front of the room for a Q&A session. It was his second day ever in New York City, and he was clearly energized by it, though somewhat abashed at being in the spotlight. "That, ladies and gentlemen, is a lesson in the dangers of full honesty cinematography."

Soon, he was asked about the nudity after the screening. "Well, getting naked to cross the river: mostly I didn't want my clothes to get wet," he said, before copping to another motivation. "But yeah, it's funny. I mean, if you're going to go to the trouble of documenting it all, you might as well have fun with it, right?"

Friday
Nov082013

McConkey Movie: Q&A with Sherry McConkey

Up now on Outside online is my Q&A with Sherry McConkey, widow the late skiing and BASE-jumping pioneer Shane McConkey, in anticipation of wide release of the documentary McConkey.

 

 

The interview that follows got bumped out of the November issue of the print magazine, but looks just as good online, and is still timely: The film is currently touring the country (it's in Minneaopolis tonight--check the movie site for all tour dates), and also available on iTunes

Read the rest at Outside online here. (And if you're looking for more backstory to the McConkey legend, might I suggest my 2009 feature about Shane's life and death.)

Friday
Nov012013

What a Catch: Brooklyn Salmon Share

Recently, I was asked by OnEarth, the publication of the NRDC, to tag along with Christopher and Emily Nicolson, the Brooklyn couple behind a CSA-style cooperative that brings wild Alaskan salmon to voracious Brooklyn foodies via their company, the Iliamna Fish Co. The salmon they distribute is caught every summer by Christopher and his extended family in a part of Bristol Bay where three generations of his family have fished.

Fantastic people and a fun story to report, for a variety of reasons, some of them personal: Christopher is my summer-time neighbor in Alaska--I fish in a spot near where his family does, and we are based out of the same tiny, hobo-style fishermen's camp--and my skipper up there is fisherman-photographer extraordinairre Corey Arnold, whose photos of Christopher, and of our fishing life up there, accompany this piece. 

 

Read the whole thing at OnEarth now, and if you still want to read more about the Iliamna Fish Co, check out Red Sea, the piece I wrote about the Portland side of their operation last year for Portland Monthly, again with a fantastic selection of Corey's photos. 

Saturday
Oct052013

One Life to Live: McConkey Film Premieres at Squaw

Today marks the culmination of a four-year journey to bring the life of skiing and BASE-jumping pioneer Shane McConkey to the big screen. With the debut of the feature doc McConkey today at Shane's home mountain of Squaw Valley, his friends, family, and collaborators are unleashing the film on a wider audience. (Click the movie link for additional cities, showtimes, etc.) To mark the occasion, I've reposted my account of attending the film's premiere this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. This first appeared in the online magazine Frontier Psychiatrist, and is now, slighly tweaked, up on the Huffington Post: 

Shane McConkey was already recognized as one of the most influential skiers of all time when he died at 39 in a BASE jumping accident in the Italian Dolomites in 2009. One of the driving forces behind the birth and popularizing of freeskiing and the hybrid sport of ski-BASE jumping that ultimately took his life, McConkey was a gifted athlete, an innovative thinker, a charismatic leader, and also a complete goofball. Four years after his death, his spirit lives on in the new film McConkey, a documentary chronicling the full scope of his life that is kicking off its wider release with a premiere on Saturday at McConkey's home mountain, Squaw Valley. For anyone with even a passing interest in skiing, adventure, and a life lived with passion and purpose, it's worth seeing.

I was fortunate enough to attend the film's debut at the Tribeca film festival last spring, with a crowd that included Shane's family and closest friends, as well as his former co-conspirators and colleagues, a rogue's gallery of world-class athletes and people whose job it is to ski down steep things and jump off high ones, as well as those whose job it is to film them, come what may.

I am well outside of that inner circle, but I count myself as one of the many whose lives Shane touched in a small but meaningful way. In 2005, he and his friend Miles Daishertaught me how to BASE jump off of the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho. I remember the minute before I jumped, so nervous I could barely breathe, looking to my left and seeing Shane sticking his tongue out and going cross-eyed. Tension broken. A moment later, he dropped the clownish face, clapped his hand on my shoulder, and said I was about to have the experience of my young life. He was not wrong. I bumped into him a couple times subsequently, but it was in researching the story I wrote about his life and death for Outsidein 2009 that I truly came to appreciate everything Shane had been and the scope of what had been lost. So I watched McConkey with a lump in my throat, cringing while jotting down notes, like this quote from a 20-something goofy-grinned Shane: "I'm getting maximum enjoyment out of life and I'll never stop."

Read the rest of the piece here.