Sean Cockerham / McClatchy-Tribune News Service

ILIAMNA, Alaska — In the vast, green, windswept tundra of southwestern Alaska, the planet’s greatest remaining stronghold of wild salmon, an open-pit mine of staggering proportions is being hatched.

Right now, it’s just a cluster of buildings in a remote valley, where the silence is broken by the buzz of helicopters bringing workers to collect core samples. But the proposed Pebble Mine could become the largest open-pit mine on the continent, and the Environmental Protection Agency figures it could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands.

The deposit of copper and gold is a potential $300 billion bonanza in a place where good jobs can be scarce. The mine’s promise of opportunity sits uneasily, though, in a region that produces half the world’s wild red salmon and sustains indigenous Alaska Native cultures that have been tied to the fish for at least 4,000 years.

“When the mine happens, it will destroy a culture,” said Jack Allen, the owner of Nushagak Cab in the Bristol Bay fishing community of Dillingham. “Fishing is not just about money here; it’s life.”

Mine opponents are pressing the EPA to shut down the project before it gets traction. Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals says its subsidiary, the Pebble Partnership, has almost finished drawing up the mine plan.

Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively hopes to start applying soon for the needed federal and state permits, possibly by the end of the year.

“For me, the biggest social and cultural aspects of that region are the salmon and what it means to people for subsistence,” said Shively, a former Alaska state official. “I am not about to bring a plan forward I think would destroy their subsistence opportunities.”

Most people in the Bristol Bay region are not convinced.

“All the mine is going to do is kill our fisheries,” said Nick Christiansen of Dillingham, smoking a cigarette on board the fishing vessel Sherry Sea. “There’s no way to do it safely; that’s been proven around the world.”

Salmon is the heartbeat and lifeblood of Dillingham, the region’s largest town. For its 2,300 residents, salmon in the freezer helps make ends meet in a place where milk costs $10.99 a gallon. Commercial fishermen and processing workers double the population in the summer. Its weathered buildings are decorated with vivid art celebrating salmon and urging its preservation, the volunteer fire department wrapped in a mural of Alaska Natives preparing their salmon harvest.

On a recent night at the Sea Inn Bar in Dillingham, customers knocked back beers, played pool in the back room and talked about how much they despise the mine.

“Everything needs clean water. The plants, animals, the fish,” said Raymond Apokedak, from the village of Levelock. “If something gets contaminated, we can’t live. We don’t have a Wal-Mart up the road.”

But one patron, Ken Rolf, abruptly asked to step outside into the twilight that passes for night in an Alaskan summer.

“What the mine will do for Southwest Alaska is phenomenal: all the industry, all the work. We need to put people to work,” he said, out of earshot of the others.

Putting people to work

Even in this early stage, the mine has put some locals to work. Pebble’s geologists and engineers are surveying the area and have hired for jobs ranging from kitchen help to bear guards.

Pebble workers from the villages, going to work in orange safety vests that sport the slogan “zero harm,” said the mine meant a chance to earn a living.

“If Pebble weren’t here I’d probably be on welfare, probably be on food stamps, probably be on energy assistance,” said Janessa Woods, who has two children.

Should the Pebble Mine proceed, developers would spend more than a billion dollars on construction for five years and would employ an average of more than 900 people at the mine for its first 25 years of operation, estimates a report for the Pebble Partnership by the national economic-consulting firm IHS.

“We have our fish, our berries, our moose, our caribou. But we also have a cash economy,” said Martha Anelon, who works for Pebble in Iliamna. “If there are no jobs, how can we live here?”

Even in Iliamna, though, there are doubts.

Chip Embretson considered the mine as he stood in front of Lake Iliamna, which at more than 1,000 square miles is the largest U.S. freshwater lake outside the Great Lakes.

A salmon sanctuary

The lake, crystal clear and ringed by mountains, is a nursery for wild salmon.

“I don’t think it’s worth the risk to the salmon,” said Embretson, a longtime resident of Iliamna. “To fix a fishery is hard, if not impossible.”

Bristol Bay is the world’s most valuable salmon fishery, according to a study by the University of Alaska Anchorage, with a total value of $1.5 billion, including processing, retail and spinoff jobs.

The waters support all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America. Salmon hatch and rear in the rivers and lakes, migrate to sea, then return to fresh water to spawn and die.

From 1990 to 2009, the annual average inshore red salmon run was about 37.5 million fish.

“It’s probably the largest and most pristine of all the salmon fisheries in the world,” said Ray Hilborn, a fisheries professor at the University of Washington. “You couldn’t design a system better for salmon.”

Pebble is turning into one of the biggest environmental battles in the nation and a major issue for the Obama administration.

The head of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, flew to Bristol Bay in August just weeks after she joined President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.

Her plane crossed an outsized territory of giant lakes and wild rivers, where moose and caribou roam grassy tundra and grizzly bears snatch fish from the waters.

“It was one of the first places I wanted to come, because I had to get a sense of not just the place, but the people,” McCarthy said.

The people who live in the watershed of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers are primarily Dena’ina Athabascans and Yup’ik Eskimos. They’re among the last cultures on the planet to still rely on wild salmon as a chief source of food.

The Yup’ik and Dena’ina of the area have traditionally considered the salmon as kin in a sacred web of life. They still practice a ceremony that pays homage to the first salmon caught in the spring and the renewal of their cycle of life.

“No amount of money or jobs can replace our way of life,” said William Evanoff, the president of the tribal council in Nondalton. “The threats are real.”