Plan to lease land near Ester for mine draws ire from residents, recreators

A large forested hilly area with a large snowy mountain in the distance
Land near Ester, Alaska (Alaskana/Creative Commons)

An Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority decision to lease more than 10,000 acres north of Ester to an Australia-based gold-mining company has alarmed people who live in the area and those who enjoy hiking, biking and other forms of recreation and subsistence in the area.

Ester Community Association President Monique Musick said the list of reasons the organization opposes the decision begins with the nuisance and hazards it would inflict on the people who live in the area.

“You’ve got 24-hour noise pollution,” Musick said in an interview Friday. “There’s blasting — this is hard-rock mining. There’s going to be equipment noises. That equipment is going to impact our traffic. There’s pollution from mining, including the increased levels of dust from that activity that has impact on residents who have respiratory illnesses. There are groundwater impacts — arsenic and other heavy metals.”

On top of that, Musick said the hundreds of people who live near land likely to be developed — around Ester Dome, Ester Lump, Henderson Road and Murphy Dome — also will see the value of their property plummet.

“Mining in your back yard does not exactly improve your property values,” she said.

Musick said mining also would have a much broader impact on the many other people who come to enjoy the area’s underdeveloped forestland and maze of back trails.

“The entire recreational trail system that connects us to Murphy Dome and these other areas — the Equinox Marathon Trail, the Dunbar Trail, the Fireplug Trails and dozens of offshoots and connectors that makes Ester Dome one of our premier recreational sites.”

Musick said both locals and area residents value the land for traditional use, including hunting, trapping and berry-picking.

The head of Alaska’s mining-industry trade group said those concerns are premature. Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Skibinski said any development of those lands would first have to be reviewed during the state’s permitting process.

Area residents should trust in the process — and participate in it, she said.

“That permitting process requires a lot of really close looks at how all of the various aspects to the environment are impacted,” Skibinski said. “That permitting process has a lot of different opportunities for public input.”

Musick said opponents of the proposal don’t find much comfort in the process because the Mental Health Trust Authority’s June 25 decision concludes mining is the highest and best use of the land. That suggests Felix Gold’s proposal is a done deal if the company finds gold, Musick feels. And given the history of gold mining in Ester, that seems quite likely.

“This lease allows them to go and immediately start that process for development, based off of what they find,” Musick said.

Skibinski said it’s not that simple. Public comments will be allowed before development: That input helps mining companies develop mitigation plans to operate without excessive impacts for nearby property owners.

That’s what was done with Kinross Alaska’s gold mine near Fox, she said.

“They went in, as part of the permitting process, did stakeholder engagement, came up with ways to mitigate concerns,” Skibinski said. “Now we have an incredibly successful gold mine, which is one of the primary economic drivers of the Interior.”

Musick said opponents don’t believe Felix Gold would make the kinds of effort Kinross did. She said their skepticism is fueled by what they say is the Mental Health Trust Authority’s efforts to conduct its Best Interest Decision-making process behind the scenes, with minimal notice provided only through legal ads published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

“There was no public announcement,” Musick said. “There wasn’t a public hearing. Those of us in the community directly impacted have not had the opportunity to ask questions, to discuss alternatives or to express our concerns.”

Skibinki disagreed.

“I have to take exception with an allegation (regarding) too little notice, too short of notice, not enough information,” she said. “When mining development is proposed, there’s very early-on stages of whether or not the land should even be leased. That doesn’t mean that a mine is going to be approved tomorrow and be built.”

Musick said she and other opponents aren’t persuaded by those assurances, she said.

But now the Felix Gold mining proposal is out in the open, the public can weigh in before Friday when the deadline for public comment on the Mental Health Trust Authority’s Best Interest decision are due.

Previous articleDoing it for Alaska: State’s first Olympic swimmer wins gold
Next articleAkiak to become first in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta with high-speed broadband internet
Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.