Red Gold

IN A WORLD bombarded with bulletins about disappearing arctic ice, missing bees, and Chinese air pollution, it’s not easy explaining what’s at risk if the largest open pit mine proposed in North America begins excavating massive amounts of copper, gold, and molybdenum ore near two of the world’s most productive salmon rivers. The young filmmakers of Red Gold succeed by avoiding familiar narratives of environmentalist advocacy. Their documentary about the Pebble Mine Project in southwest Alaska beautifully captures the landscape’s vitality — a bear rising from a windblown meadow, waves of salmon finning their way upriver, the ocean’s shining heave as fishing boats head out. But the film’s true power emerges from the simple act of skipping narration and allowing people to speak for themselves.

The filmmakers spent sixty-eight days filming in Bristol Bay communities and at river camps, interviewing an unlikely coalition of sport anglers, business owners, commercial fishermen, and Alaska Natives who are opposed to the mine. Several are especially eloquent in explaining how much they love a livelihood that depends on healthy fisheries, and how much they could lose if the mine opens.

“Salmon is a way of life,” says Rick Delkittie of Nondalton. “We were raised by salmon.”

Bristol Bay’s fisheries are among the world’s most productive; as many as 60 million sockeye salmon a year can return to the Kvichak River to spawn. But salmon is more than an industry. It’s how people feed themselves; it’s essential to cultural and personal identity; it’s the foundation of families and communities. “It’s food for the soul,” says commercial fisherman Peter Andrew, an Alaska Native.

The documentary relies on just a few piercing facts to suggest the project’s scale: “If built, the Pebble Mine would cover fifteen square miles of watershed and require what could be the largest dam in the world to contain toxic runoff.” What’s more telling is hearing vague assurances about responsible development from representatives of Alaska’s mining industry and the Pebble Partnership.

“All we ask is that people give us the benefit of the doubt,” says chief operating officer Bruce Jenkins. Once the company presents its plan publicly, he argues, “let the data speak for itself, rather than the emotion dictating a decision.” But the documentary makes it clear that those most affected can’t afford to trust only in the company’s data and promises.

“This is a job for them,” says Dylan Braund, a young setnetter who entered law school to protect Bristol Bay’s fisheries. “This is our life. This is our life.”