In Haines, Alaska, every November becomes a picturesque scene with the return of an American icon - the bald eagle. "It's akin to being on the Serengeti and watching the migration of the wildebeest," photographer Mario Benassi shared with local media.
Haines serves as the entry point to a meeting place for the largest populace of bald eagles in the U.S. - the majestic Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. "This is the greatest concentration of bald eagles anywhere on the planet," Benassi highlights. "At times, we've counted up to 4,000 individuals."
This significant gathering, explained Benassi, owes much to the area's geothermal springs that keep the river from freezing, leaving an abundant supply of salmon for the eagles. However, these splendid scenes of natural abundance may soon hang in the balance with a potential threat upstream.
"A new mining exploration could signify the end of this one-of-a-kind gathering," Benassi worriedly noted. Recently, the state permitted the exploration of copper extraction in the region, a move supported by Gov. Mike Dunleavy citing job creation.
Environmentalists like Gershon Cohen, a resident of Haines and clean water advocate, are ringing alarm bells. "Mines, without exception, have a history of polluting," Cohen explained. He is particularly worried about toxic runoff from mining activities, potentially contaminating the Chilkat River. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mining can lead to contaminating up to 40% of the nation's waterways.
"The whole ecosystem could collapse if the salmon population is impacted by the proposed mine," warns Cohen. The tailspin, he adds, would most significantly affect the bald eagles whose livelihood depends on the salmon.
American Pacific Mining, the company spearheading the project, communicated its commitment to operating responsibly and respecting protected areas and species, including the bald eagles, via an email response.
However, many native Alaskans who depend on the salmon industry remain wary. Fishermen Hank and Kimberly Strong, who typically catch between 20 to 30 salmon daily, have already observed a decrease in their catch – an indication of climate change's effects. The idea of a mining operation adds to their concerns.
"Why take that risk?" Kimberly Strong questionned the copper mine's plan. "I don't go to Las Vegas to gamble. Why would I want to gamble with our home?"