New federal program aims to speed restoration of damaged Alaska streams and rivers

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - July 10, 2024
A section of Nome Creek in the White Mountains National Recreation Area, seen in June, shows how historic placer mining, which dredged much of the waterway, molded the bank into a scalloped rock wall. A new federal program aims to speed the process of repairing this type of historic damage and restoring waterways in Alaska. (Photo by Matthew Varner/U.S. Bureau of Land Management)

Around Alaska, particularly in the Interior region, there are streams, creeks and rivers that were damaged by mining conducted as far back as the mid-19th century.

The Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency of the Department of the Interior, now has a new program intended to speed up work to fix those historic damages.

The agency has made final its systematic approach that is intended to avoid the need for full-scale environmental analysis of each proposed restoration project. The new program features a matrix of restoration techniques, ranging in intensity from planting vegetation by hand to use of heavy equipment to redirect waterways or rebuild streambanks. Those techniques are to be matched to individual projects’ needs and physical characteristics that include fish and wildlife habitat, geologic formations and levels of damage.

The idea is to complete projects as quickly as possible while adhering to requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws, said Matthew Varner, leader for fisheries and riparian resources in the BLM’s Alaska aquatic resources program.

“Restoration projects, like most federal agency actions on the ground, require environmental analysis consistent with NEPA,” Varner said. “And when you couple NEPA compliance with permitting association with stream restoration, you know, that could take six years to a year to complete.”

Under the newly approved program, BLM can do “a very streamlined environmental assessment” for each project without starting from scratch, he said. “You can basically say, ‘Well, we’ve already analyzed all these impacts already. We just have to analyze a small piece.’”

The result is that the process that used to take up to a year can now be completed in four to six months, he said.

Gold Dredge No. 5 is reflected in the water in Nome on Sept. 5, 2021. This large dredge, now a historic landmark in Nome, was used from the early 1940s to the early 1960s, according to the University of Alaska. Dredges like this were used in large-scale placer mining operations in different parts of the state. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The new program envisions restoration work for up to 5 miles of stream or riparian habitat each year for 25 years.

The program fits with the Department of the Interior’s broader Gravel to Gravel Keystone Initiative aimed at restoring Alaska salmon habitat in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwimregion, Varner said.

Most of the historic damage to streams, creeks and rivers in the BLM’s Alaska lands is the result of placer mining, a system of mining that separates metals from sand or gravel, Varner said. That contrasts with the situation in the Western states of the Lower 48, where stream restoration work is largely focused on damage caused by grazing livestock or agricultural irrigation, he said.

While the new Alaska program covers 45.5 million acres of BLM lands spread through most of the state, there are specific trouble spots that are high priorities.

One is Nome Creek in the White Mountains National Recreation Area northeast of Fairbanks, where miners in the past dredged the valley. Restoration work started there in the 1990s and continues. Among the challenges, according to a BLM report issued in 2007, have been periodic flood-causing storms.

Other  high-priority areas are the Wade Creek watershed, which is part of the Fortymile Wild and Scenic River and has had mining activity dating back to the mid-1800s; the Harrison Creek watershed in the Steese National Conservation Area, where extensive mining has occurred since the late 1800s; and the Salmon River in Western Alaska, where industrial-scale mining that started in the 1930s and produced 650,000 ounces of platinum also left behind 44 million cubic yards of tailings and waste rock, according to the BLM.

Restoring Alaska waterways has proved difficult so far. Among the challenges is climate change, according to the programmatic environmental assessment the BLM published about the program. That document lists various climate change effects — such as increasing wildfire intensity, increased storm surges, higher temperatures and increased runoff from faster-melting glaciers – as hindrances to restoration efforts.

“There hasn’t been a lot of stream restoration work done in Alaska, and the stuff that was done in the ‘90s and early 2000s, much of it failed,” Varner said. “The science in the Arctic related to stream restoration is a very young science, and BLM has been doing a lot of work to test and refine methods.”

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