SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
December 12, 1977
For all its vast and rugged scope, Alaska is fragile almost to the point of delicacy. Scarred by the passage of a D-9 Caterpillar tractor, a stretch of tundra may take a decade to heal itself. Dwarf birch and willow trees not much bigger than shrubs in the Lower Forty-Eight are actually venerable octogenarians with a frail grip on life. Even a single burly barren-ground grizzly, one of the strongest and fiercest animals on earth, needs 100 square miles of territory for forage. And the Arctic caribou herd of 240,000 animals—a seeming ocean of undulating antlers and meat during migration—must have 90 million acres of empty land to fulfill its role in the ecosystem. In the icy waters where winter is unrelieved by sunlight, fish grow slowly at best. Thus the slightest excess of pressure can empty a stream or lake system of life in no time.
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December 12, 1977

The Fragile Giant

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"Take the silvers in the Togiak. The fresh-fish buyers came in and offered 62� a pound—hard cash—to the natives for them. And the natives responded. They took 75% of all the spawning fish out of the river. Gillnetting. It was totally illegal—the most flagrant destruction of a resource that I've seen in 14 years up here. Worse than anything I saw in 7� years as a game warden. Those fresh-fish buyers turned around and sold the fish for a good profit—five or six bucks a pound. Over four million pounds of fish were shipped out on one airline alone. Western, Northwest and JAL had a record year for flying fresh fish out of Alaska and the buyers paid two-and sometimes three-to-one over the cannery prices. It's the worst ripoff I've ever seen and the Togiak River suffered.

"I don't blame the natives. They should have all their aboriginal rights, just as the Native Claims Act grants them. But they should be required to fish with wicker fykes, rock leads, bone spears—not with 70-horse outboard motors and nylon monofilament gill nets. They build those nets with cable-lay mono—20 to 50 denier. You can hang a moose on that stuff. I'd feel safe tying up my plane with three strands of it. In the old days, a big king could bust his way through a wicker fyke. Not anymore.

"The real story up here isn't the pipeline," Martin says. "That's just a spider thread through lizard country. The real story is the impending demise of the salmon because of bucks and the natives. Nobody in Alaska or Outside knows what the natives are doing to the salmon and the freshwater species. Is the killing of the fish necessary for subsistence when the natives have over $900 million in their pockets and 43.7 million acres of land—over half the bottom land in Alaska?

"Nobody knows what the industrialists have planned for Alaska. I'm not a lockup kind of person, but I'm in favor of Udall's bill to turn most of Alaska into a national park. When it comes to wildlife resources, Udall is right, for now at least. This isn't popular with most Alaskans, but it makes sense to me. Let's conserve the resource. We can always open it up later, when we know what's there and how long it can last under what kind of pressure. Why not just sit on it for a while? See how to allot it, how to develop it. The main thing is, they've got to control these natives. Eight more years of this and it's going to be gone. They violate the law and get away with it because they are natives. In the Togiak silver-salmon slaughter, the white buyers knew where the illegal silvers were coming from.

"Well, when they're done we can put in a hatchery."

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