January 10, 2022 |Tim Troll

Safeguarding the World’s Most Productive Salmon Fishery

learn more about Pedro Bay Rivers

In an ambitious effort to continue this work, the Pedro Bay Corporation, the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust and The Conservation Fund have come together to launch the Pedro Bay Rivers Conservation Project. The project, if successful, will place conservation easements on 44,170 acres of land and waterways owned by Pedro Bay Corporation to protect forever critical salmon spawning and rearing habitat and prevent an industrial road to the proposed Pebble Mine.

Click here to view a larger version of the map.

We asked Tim Troll, Executive Director and a founder of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, to share his thoughts on this important project and about the significance of the salmon that return annually to Pedro Bay to spawn.

How important are the salmon of Bristol Bay to the fishing industry and to the people who live there?

Tim Troll: Salmon have been essential to this region for as long as humans have lived here. Life for the people, particularly the indigenous Yup’ik, Aleutiq and Dena’ina, revolved around salmon—harvesting them, processing them, drying, smoking, canning and freezing them, and putting them away for winter. Many people have summer fish camps where they have built salmon drying racks and smokehouses. It is an important part of the culture of Bristol Bay.

Preparing salmon for smoking and drying. Photos by Clark James Mishler.

Bristol Bay is Valhalla for sockeye salmon, which are the most commercially valuable salmon. Sockeye spawn and rear primarily in lakes, and Bristol Bay has the largest and deepest lakes in Alaska. In fact, the Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon run in the world, producing roughly half of the world’s wild sockeye harvest.

Local residents are not only dependent upon the salmon for their own use, but also for the cash income they can earn from commercial fishing. When I moved to Dillingham in 1996, I was aware there was a commercial fishery in Bristol Bay but hadn’t really paid much attention to it. Then I saw the transformation of the town as the summer fishing season was approaching. People from the outlying villages, from around the country and from around the world started coming in, canneries opened, boats started getting ready and people went out fishing. From mid May to early August the town was a frenzy of activity, and it has been that way since the commercial fishery began in 1884. It’s just amazing to see, and by September the town quiets down again.

Commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay. Photo by Clark James Mishler.

Why is land in the region, specifically in the northeastern section of Iliamna Lake, under threat?

Tim: When we started the land trust, our focus was on protecting privately-owned land that provides critical salmon habitat. We were concerned that if these lands changed hands they would no longer be owned by the people who live there and who have a long connection to salmon. We wanted to protect that salmon habitat to keep the salmon economy viable.
A great deal of prime salmon habitat is located on private lands owned by Alaska Native corporations established under the Alaska Native claims Settlement Act of 1971. We have been working with these corporations because they own over 7 million acres in Bristol Bay. Alaska Native corporations are profit-making entities and have no legal obligation to use their land assets to protect a public good like salmon. In fact, the opposite is true: they are obliged to use their assets to make a profit and pay dividends to its shareholders. One of the major drawbacks of the Settlement Act is that it could pit shareholders who want to develop land in conflict with shareholders who want to keep the land pristine to protect traditional subsistence resources, like salmon, that are dependent on that land. Conservation easements provide an opportunity for a Native corporation to protect its land while creating economic value that adds to the corporate bottom line.
Then the Pebble Mine project came along and proposed a major gold and copper mining operation at the top of the drainages of both the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers and a transportation corridor that would cut through Pedro Bay Corporation land. This was a major threat to the ecological and cultural integrity of the region. Suddenly everyone, including the Land Trust, was focused on this potential threat, and we’ve been dealing with it now for more than a decade.
When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced it intended to block a permit the Pebble Mine needs from the Army Corps of Engineers, many people breathed a sigh of relief. But, as we have seen before, that decision could be reversed by a subsequent administration. We need another backstop, and that’s why conservation easements—which will legally protect this land permanently—are so important. The easement takes government involvement out of play. Pedro Bay has decided it doesn’t want the Pebble Mine access road to cross its private lands. It is a decision of the Pedro Bay Corporation, and that decision is not subject to reversal or change by the government. Pedro Bay Corporation shares ownership responsibility with the Land Trust and neither can grant permission for an industrial road to cross the property.
Taken separately, EPA actions, legislative solutions, and land protection efforts like the Pedro Bay Rivers project each make the possibility of Pebble Mine less likely, but taken together, all these actions can make the project nearly impossible.

What got you interested in this line of work? How did the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust get started?

Tim: I came to Alaska in 1978 as a VISTA volunteer lawyer and was sent out to Western Alaska. Believe it or not, when I first came to Alaska, I don’t think I’d ever eaten salmon, except possibly as a salmon patty made from canned salmon. I went out to this town called Bethel and one of the guys in my office said, “Let’s go out fishing.” And I thought, oh, okay, fishing, I’m going to get a rod and a reel. But he said I didn’t need it, and instead I went out with him and we threw a net out into the Kuskokwim River. We wound up catching about 100 silver salmon, and I was just blown away. I had never seen anything like that before. It was my first experience with the bounty of salmon and how it was ingrained in the way of life of the people I’d come out to serve.

Tim Troll holding a King Salmon caught on the Yukon River in 1982. Photo courtesy Tim Troll.

After holding several different jobs in the state, I wound up in the Bristol Bay region around 1996, when I took the job of CEO for Choggiung LTD, a local Native village corporation organized under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The corporation had 300,000 acres of land, and a lot of that land was prime salmon habitat. The lands of the corporation were checkered with smaller tracts of privately-owned inholdings called Native allotments.

The Board of Directors became very concerned that it was becoming more difficult to manage its own lands as some of these smaller Native allotment parcels were sold and developed. A lot of that land was used by the shareholders for subsistence purposes like hunting, fishing, and berry picking. There was this fear that if too many Native allotments were sold out of Native ownership it would change the entire character of the region, and probably put too much pressure on the resources that were available for subsistence. However, as a corporation we could not spend our own limited assets to purchase land that would not be converted to an income producing asset. A real quandary…

Then one day, Brad Meiklejohn came into my office. He was passing through town and stopped by to inform me that The Conservation Fund was purchasing a Native allotment it considered critical for protecting salmon on a major river in the local State Park. I asked if The Conservation Fund could purchase other private parcels in the region. He stated it was possible, but that not every parcel we might want to protect would meet the criteria of the Fund. Brad suggested we consider forming our own land trust. I was unfamiliar with land trusts, so he offered to provide funding to send some folks to the annual gathering of land trusts in the United States to find out more. We took up the offer, and the rest is history.

The Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust just celebrated 20 years. In that time, largely with the help of The Conservation Fund, we have helped preserve just over 39,000 acres of private lands, and by December 2022 we hope to add another 44,000 acres with the completion of the Pedro Bay Rivers Project.

Tim Troll surveying anadromous waters in Bristol Bay. Photo courtesy Tim Troll.

Tell me more about partnership between Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, Pedro Bay Corporation, Bristol Bay Native Corporation and The Conservation Fund.

Tim: We started working with The Conservation Fund on our very first project on the Agulapak River in Wood-Tikchik State Park in 2007. We expanded upon that partnership with the purchase of a 21,000-acre conservation easement project with Aleknagik Natives LTD along the Agulowak River. Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the regional Native corporation for Bristol Bay, participated in that project. From there we moved to a 12,700-acre conservation easement project with the Pedro Bay Corporation and a 1,200 acre project with Iliamna Natives LTD to safeguard habitat for spawning salmon and freshwater seals around some 180 islands at the eastern end of Lake Iliamna.
The Bristol Bay Native Corporation has been particularly helpful recognizing that the health of the region it serves depends on the health of the land. Their leadership understands how conservation easements can not only protect the land, but also open up economic opportunities for the villages in its region.For the most part, the people who live in this area are not wealthy. Most local individuals can’t financially support our conservation efforts in Bristol Bay, so we need access to funding sources elsewhere. The Conservation Fund brought that expertise to Bristol Bay beginning with that first deal back in 2007.

Photo by Jason Ching.

What else do you want the people reading this to know?

Tim: Our work is not over when the Pedro Bay conservation easement deal is done. Lake Iliamna still needs much more attention because it lies at the heart of the greatest remaining salmon system left on the planet. What we have learned across the world is that we have to give salmon our sustained and focused attention and our utmost care. If we do, they keep coming back to us. If we don’t, they don’t.
Conservation of renewable natural resources like salmon has to prove that it provides a viable alternative to economic opportunities that involve the depletion of non-renewable resources. If we fail here, not only do we lose the salmon, but we also lose the people who depend on the salmon, and we will all be much poorer for that.
In addition to methods of direct conservation, like the purchase of easements, we also need to look at ways to leverage conservation with income-producing opportunities that can help people continue to live in their villages. An example is the Bristol Bay Fly-Fishing & Guide Academy that the Land Trust, Bristol Bay Native Corporation and others started in 2008. The mission of the Academy is to train local youth for employment opportunities in the local sport fishing industry. Pedro Bay is a struggling village. It no longer has a school. Its population has been diminishing. And it is not the only village in Bristol Bay confronting this reality. If we are going to ask the people of the region to conserve their land for the benefit of salmon and the commercial and sport fisheries that depends on the salmon then we must find ways to make it possible for these same people to continue living on the land.

Written by

Tim Troll

In his 40+ years in Alaska, Tim Troll has served as a city manager for two remote Alaska villages, established a private law practice in Anchorage, worked for the State of Alaska as a local government specialist, directed The Nature Conservancy’s Southwest Alaska program and was CEO of the village corporation Choggiung LTD. Tim was instrumental in the incorporation of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust in 2000, where he has served as Executive Director since 2004.

Tim has fished commercially and for subsistence on the Yukon River and in Bristol Bay. He is also the author of Sailing for Salmon: The Early Days of Commercial Fishing in Alaska’s Bristol Bay 1884 – 1951. In 2019 Tim was presented the Denali Award by the Alaska Federation of Natives for his work with Alaska Native communities in Bristol Bay and on the Yukon River. He is married to Leanne Goetchius and they have two adult sons who live in Anchorage.